by Dr. Boyce Watkins, KultureKritic.com
Harry Belafonte, who did a great deal of work for the black community during the Civil Rights Movement, is making no secret of the fact that he’s very disappointed in many young black celebrities when it comes to to social activism. Speaking this week with the Hollywood Reporter, Belafonte pointed out Jay-Z and Beyonce as prime examples of what he’s talking about.
THR: Back to the occasion of the award for your acting career. Are you happy with the image of members of minorities in Hollywood today?
Belafonte: Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking. We are not determinated. We are not driven by some technology that says you can kill Afghanistans, the Iraquis or the Spanish. It is all – excuse my French – shit. It is sad. And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.
My friend Alexis Stodghill at TheGrio makes the point (in a news piece where she carefully cites both sides of the issue) that perhaps Belafonte is off-base with his critique. She notes that Beyonce has spoken up for her fellow recording artist Frank Ocean when he admitted that he was gay, and that Jay-Z has chumed it up with President Obama during his presidential campaign and supported him on the issue of gay marriage.
We must note that Beyonce and Jay-Z speaking up on gay marriage and homosexuality is little more than a political decision designed to remain in alignment with the Obama presidency. If Barack had said nothing on the issue, Jay-Z would have said nothing. So, we have to be sure not to mistake meaningful advocacy for elitist political shoulder-rubbing (wealthy famous people tend to take care of one another).
But when you look at the black aristocracy that is known as Jay-Z and Beyonce, one form of activism that is missing is anything that involves the words “poor black people.” Also, when it comes to issues that affect the least of us, including poverty, mass incarceration, urban violence, unequal educational systems and the like, it’s easy to say that Jay-Z and Beyonce have been effectively missing in action, unless it’s time to show up and utilize this audience to sell albums.
One exception noted by Kirsten West Savali at NewsOne.com is the Shawn Carter foundation, created by Jay-Z and the people who work for him. According to the foundation’s website, “Since the Foundation’s inception, over 750 students have received awards totaling over $1.3 million dollars.”
Jay-Z should certainly be commended for doing something he didn’t have to do, but let’s really think about this for a second, shall we? First, most corporations have some kind of foundation. Even Wal-Mart can claim to have sent thousands of kids to college, as they simultaneously strip workers of their rights around the world, drive small companies out of business and refuse to pay a living wage to their employees. Secondly, if you divide the $1.3 million given away by the foundation by 750 scholarship recipients, that’s about $1,733 per child. Please tell me what college in America has a tuition bill of $1,733. Of course Jay-Z gives away more than most of us can afford, but even the local drug dealer can also afford to use heroin money give away turkeys at Chistmas. The point here is that if I pillage half a billion dollars from the black community over a 10-year period, it’s pretty easy for me to give back $1.3 million of it.
I noticed a line in Jay-Z’s song “Niggaz in Paris,” where he says, “Can you see the private jets flying over you?” This line is part of a consistent message of black elitism that has become all-too prevalent in the entertainment industry. It is a statement which says, “I’m better than you, and I am not one of you. Your job is to either worship me or hate on me, I don’t care which one.”
Beyond the “extensive” efforts of his foundation, Jay-Z is also the man who earned over $63 million dollars last year and only gave $6,000 to charity. Unfortunately, this has become par for the course in a world where poor black people are not nearly as fashionable of a cause as gay white kids from the suburbs. Poor black kids can’t buy your records, rendering them effectively useless.
So, while Beyonce and Jay-Z speaking up on marriage equality is a politely cute form of activism, you have to agree with Belafonte that today’s artists are taught not to care about anyone other than themselves. At best, we might get a photo op at a charity event, but the real pressure to sacrifice for those who are suffering is lost as millions of us forgive celebrities for being unwilling to use their power to make the world a better place. The rule is simple: If you’re rich, we love you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a former crack dealer (Jay-Z), brag about murdering women and children (Lil Wayne) or sleep with middle school kids on the weekends (R. Kelly). Money is used to wash away all sins, and people are quicker to disrespect an icon like Harry Belafonte than they are to challenge celebrities to do more than tweet pictures of their newborn baby.
By “social responsibility,” I don’t think that Belafonte is referring to charity concerts or speaking to Congress about saving dolphins. He’s talking about the kind of activism that requires testicular fortitude. He’s talking about the black men and women during the 1960s who used their voices loud and clear to state that things need to change in America soon, or else.
Those days are long gone. In the 1960s, oppression was much more rampant, so nearly every black person was banging on the door of equality. Today, those who’ve been allowed access to predominantly white institutions are asked to sign a “Good negro forever” card, and disavow any meaningful political stands that might get them into trouble with a corporate sponsor or record label. As a result, we have a group of celebrities who are very quick to build their brands off the “street cred” granted to them by impoverished African Americans, but don’t feel compelled to use those brands to become anything other than corporate-sponsored slumlords.
So, a “gangsta rapper” can speak all day about his time in prison, but he dare not say anything about the fact that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world, earning billions on the backs of black men and women, destroying millions of families in the process. He can rap all about “all his homies that done passed away,” but he’s better off staying away from a conversation about how gun violence is fueled by manufacturers who are happy to build profitable corporate tools to fund black male genocide.
It is the lack of acknowledgement of the deep and piercing artifacts of black oppression that bother Belafonte and others the most. It’s what bothers me too, for I’ve always been raised to believe that (to recite the words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) great power comes with great responsibility.
Perhaps when Jay-Z really understands what wealth is all about, he can take a note from Warren Buffett, Oprah and others, who’ve convinced several billionaires to give half of their wealth to charity when they die. A billion dollars is far more than enough for one family so why not use the rest of save 1,000 families? Is it nothing less than utterly shameful to have 10 houses, 15 cars, 200 expensive suits and several private planes? Maybe there is a point where such gluttony should not be celebrated by the rest of us, and instead be called out as pathetic in a world where millions of children are going to die this year from starvation.
Anyone who disagrees with me might want to consider the fact that there is nothing consistent with the teachings of Jesus about letting innocent people starve while you’re burning money in your basement. The principled stands by men like Muhammad Ali, who gave away nearly everything to stand up for his values, are virtually non-existence when our leading artists write songs about excessive materialism, getting high and drunk every day, killing other black men and unhealthy sexual promiscuity. Belafonte is right on point and we should look to our elders to remind us of what it means to live a purposeful and righteous life.
Harry Belafonte, by speaking up at the age of 85, is effectively asking that young people pick up the baton that he’s been running since Dr. King was a teenager. But instead of picking up the baton, we’ve thrown it at his feet and signed ourselves up for corporate slavery. I congratulate Harry for taking a stand on this important issue, and I am hopeful that his courage can spark the cultural revolution necessary to make our people stronger as a result.
Way to go Harry, I respect you.