Veteran civil rights activist and world-renowned entertainer Harry Belafonte hit a raw nerve last year when he suggested Black artists be more outspoken about their besieged communities.
“I think one of the great abuses of this modern time,” he observed, “is that we have such high-profile artists and powerful celebrities, but they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay Z and Beyoncé, for example.”
Even though Belafonte continuously emphasizes his remarks were not intended to be personal and that he earnestly desires a private, fraternal conversation not a public dispute, Jay Z clearly took it all very personal, criticizing Belafonte in the media and on the title track of his new album, “Magna Carta…Holy Grail.”
Jay Z also responded by elaborating his own alternative version of “social responsibility.”
He told the press that “I’m offended…and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation and outside of America is enough.”
On this point, I beg to differ. Preaching hope is not enough to solve our problems, not by a long shot. Neither do charitable donations even comes close to fulfilling basic social needs.
Leaving aside self-serving tax benefits, mostly accruing to the wealthiest donors who itemize a myriad of exemptions, individual handouts, no matter how well-intentioned and admirable, cannot solve deeply rooted problems of our day.
Plus, with a July 28, 2013 AP wire service report indicating four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, there is absolutely no justification for government to abandon its social contract with the people.
It would be yet another bad example of outsourcing state duties to the profit sector.
This approach has not and cannot work. Poverty and racism, for example, are primarily institutionalized problems, not fundamentally individualized problems. They can only be addressed properly through changes on a grand scale that only governments can accomplish.
Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Hélder Câmara understood this very well.
The Archbishop was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and served the urban poor from 1964-1985 during a period of murderous repression from a brutal military dictatorship. He knew better than Jay Z the distinction between individual charity and the obligations of government.
As he famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Using Câmara’s example of asking why the poor have no food, one might, therefore, recommend higher taxes on the wealthy as a better solution than our current lower tax laws that essentially fund personal donations by the wealthy over which there is no democratic control or accountability.
But, again, this is something Jay Z can’t swallow. After all, reportedly worth $460 million himself, he’s definitely no communist.
The September 12, 2012 London Mail online edition summarized Jay Z’s views on the Occupy Wall Street Movements by writing that “the rapper said that he never supported the wealth inequality protests in spite of his attempts to cash in on their popularity” by selling T-Shirts brandishing “Occupy All Streets” as a slogan.
Again, in a New York Times interview last year, he disputed the Occupy Wall Street critique of America’s wealthiest class and said that it’s “free enterprise. This is what America is built on.”
And there is possibly another side to Jay Z’s emphasis on charity. It is a lot less controversial than demanding our government live up to civic expectations. Perhaps this explains why so many celebrities set up charities but wouldn’t be caught dead appearing at a protest.
Not Just Another Celebrity Dispute
It is easy to get distracted or perhaps even titillated by what may be mistaken as just another celebrity controversy. But this misses an important point.
If an actual discussion does occur regarding the political role of Black cultural figures and if it actually does result in more famous folks joining with the community for serious reforms, it can influence millions of young people trying to figure out their own role in improving our society.
That’s exactly what happened in my generation.
Acts of conscience and conviction by Black artists, in particular, during the turbulent period of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements served to inspire millions of young people of all races who, like me, were coming of age, grappling with momentous issues of war, poverty and racism and trying to figure out what it all meant.
Belafonte himself speaks from these personal experiences. He was among a significant number of leading Black luminaries such as Lena Horne, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Eartha Kitt, Sidney Poitier, Ray Charles and Muhammad Ali who took action in the early days of the civil rights movement some 50 and 60 years ago.
They not only lent their money and prestige, they each took controversial public stands.
For example, popular actress and singer Eartha Kitt dared to speak out against the Vietnam War, describing it as hurting poor people while she was First “Lady Bird” Johnson’s guest at a White House reception. Similarly, with the fruits of being World Heavyweight Champion right before him, Ali dared to challenge the uncontested authority of the draft board and condemned the Vietnam War as racist.
Boldly acting against mainstream opinion at the time took a tremendous amount of personal courage and their choices came at enormous costs to their public careers and private lives.
Other Black celebrities risked their popularity by cancelling bookings and declining to perform before segregated audiences. Belafonte himself refused to perform in the south from 1954-1961 at the height of “Jim Crow” segregationist laws.
I suspect it must particularly pain seasoned civil rights leaders like Belafonte to see the dearth of such heroic figures today and that may have prompted him to speak out as he did. The record amply shows that he knows the personal risks of what he asks of today’s cultural icons and clearly, for him, the benefits are far more rewarding.
It’s All About Me Now
But so much has changed today. Our society is more about “Money, Money, Money! and “Me, Me, Me!” than “We, We, We!” And that twisted perversion of our humanity seeps into every fabric of our society, including the arts.
If one does enjoy celebrity status, it’s all about protecting your brand, expanding your product line and cultivating your consumer-driven fan base. Financial advisors and publicity agents chart out your every move, issuing Twitter denials and qualifications of anything that comes out vaguely damaging to the image of your latest clothing and fragrance line.
As an aside, branding is a particularly offensive term to me when applied to humans because it was once exclusively reserved for cattle. It should remain that way as far as I’m concerned. Is this a metaphor suggesting our artists have become slabs of meat? Are they being trained, groomed and packaged for the market, no longer real and genuine?
What happened to the rebellious spirit of the arts, challenging us to shake things up?
What many believe to be the miscarriage of justice in the Trayvon Martin murder case has revived the discussion begun last year by Belafonte. And there has been some progress.
To their credit, both Jay Z and Beyoncé spoke out at their recent concerts against the miscarriage of justice in Sanford, Florida and both attended a rally with Trayvon’s mother. Beyoncé even signed a protest petition, reportedly for the very first time ever.
These are all positive steps that should be applauded.
But there remains more to do. For example, Stevie Wonder recently added his powerful voice by announcing his personal boycott of the state of Florida and any other state where “Stand Your Ground” laws are enforced.
Like the still-committed and politically active 86-year old Belafonte, who recently appeared in Florida’s state capital to support Dream Defenders conducting a sit-in protest of Stand Your Ground laws, Wonder’s remarks alluded to action, not just words.
“You can’t just talk about it, you have to be about it,” Wonder said.
For Wonder, a boycott was a compelling personal choice. He made no apparent effort to preach or to campaign for others to join. It is purely his personal example that shines. Still, the tepid response to the boycott is certainly disappointing even if predictable.
It says nothing about the high esteem Wonder enjoys but reveals everything about the powerful impact marketing and branding still has on all super-stars, not just Black celebrities, and it reveals how genuinely divorced they remain from the real needs of their respective communities.
The most recent actions of Jay Z and Beyoncé are good signs but I suspect that no dramatic changes will occur among our revered, talented and influential cultural icons until the tainted financial grip of Wall Street is replaced once and for all by concerns for the urgent social needs of Our Street.
Carl Finamore is Machinist Local 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He greatly admires Harry Belafonte; Jay Z, not so much.