In 2012, singer and social activist Harry Belafonte publicly lambasted Beyoncè and Jay Z in an interview with CNN’s Alexandra Zawia. Having been an early supporter of Martin Luther King Jr.’s during the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, Belafonte has spent the bulk of his career fighting injustice and championing humanitarian causes. So when asked how he felt minority celebrities were representing their communities in the media, he responded with disdain: “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 Beyoncè, for example.”
In a society that holds Mr. and Mrs. Carter akin to something like royalty, comments like these are nothing short of controversial. In response, Jay Z issued a public statement in which he claimed, “…my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope.” And despite the arrogant nature of the comment, which he acknowledged, the fact of the matter is that in some circles, in some neighborhoods or underprivileged communities, Jay Z’s mere presence probably is something…hopeful. That being said, Belafonte’s statements pose some interesting questions to the black community as a whole: Do the idols we hold dear really represent us, or do they represent us when it’s profitable for their bottom line? Can you truly sympathize with our struggles if you’re a member of the 1%? And when you represent corporate America, can you still stand up for the neighborhoods you grew up in?
In her 2013 single “Flawless”, an alleged feminist anthem, Beyoncè sampled a TED talk given by Nigerian writer and public speaker Chimamanda Adichie between the verses. In an interview with Quartz Africa after the song’s release, Adichie discussed the flurry of publicity she experienced shortly after the song dropped and expressed her feelings on Beyoncè’s particular brand of feminism: “Her type of feminism is not mine as it is the kind that, at the same time, gives quite a lot of space to the necessity of men. I think men are lovely, but I don’t think that women should relate everything they do to men. Did he hurt me? Do I forgive him? Did he put a ring on my finger? We women are so conditioned to relate everything to men.”
It can’t be argued that over the course of her solo career, men have been the main subject matter behind the majority of Beyoncè’s greatest hits. From her debut “Crazy In Love” to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” the overwhelming messaging of Beyoncè’s platform as an artist has pushed for the validation of a male counterpart. And while that’s nothing out of the ordinary for a female artist, it’s an important observation to make when that artist places herself at the forefront of modern black feminism. After all, it was only in the last few years that the singer began to take firmer, more public stances on social issues. And when she did, albeit still playing it fairly safe, as in the case of her now infamous “tribute” to the Black Panthers during the Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show, the backlash only underscored the lack of political awareness that existed in her career prior to that. Moreover, it underscored her efforts to conform to the expectations and the standards of white America for so many years. Saturday Night Live hilariously took note of this in “The Day Beyoncè Turned Black” – a skit that aired shortly after the Superbowl in February of that year. In it, white fans are traumatized after watching the music video for “Formation,” as they suspect that in fact, Beyoncè might actually be… a black woman. And while the premise of skit is satirical, there’s a lot of truth to it. In the name of record sales and radio play, Beyoncè was not an artist that really spoke out on black issues until somewhere around 2013. And while her readiness to do so since then is admirable, it goes without saying that dressing up like a Black Panther for a dance routine is a far cry from actually marching alongside one.
In his 2017 interview with New York Times, Jay Z sat down with Executive Editor Dean Baquet to discuss his album 4:44. The two men sure have a lot to say about O.J. Simpson, who they both deem must have forgotten his proverbial “blackness” somewhere in the accumulation of extreme wealth – a tragedy they both agree was probably the catalyst to his public downfall. When asked for his opinion on the current state of leadership in America, he makes interesting mention of Dave Chappelle. “I find it funny, but… I like Dave Chappelle’s [laughs].” Baquet presses the rapper, asking if he would vote for the comedian if he ran for president. “Yeah. ‘Cause he tells it in humor so you can deal with it, but it’s always a nice chunk of truth in there.” Jay Z’s love for Chappelle is not without a certain sense of irony however. After reportedly walking away from a 55 million dollar deal with Comedy Central during what was inarguably the height of his popularity, Dave Chappelle vanished completely from the spotlight and moved to Africa. While it’s unclear exactly what prompted the move, the comedian claims that during that time in his life, his principals mattered far more than the money did. Jay Z, on the other hand, is very much in the business of making money. With corporate ties to Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft just to name a few, Forbes recently estimated his net worth to be somewhere in the ballpark of 800 million; and while there’s nothing wrong with making obscene amounts of money, one does begin to wonder how those corporate alliances may influence his thinking, or rather, his perspective. Not long after the interview with New York Times hit newsstands, consumer support lines were inundated at Anheuser-Busch, the sponsor of Jay Z’s Made In America Music Festival, when they announced they would not be severing ties with the NFL in the wake of overwhelming public support for Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, who was ousted by the NFL after his infamous kneeling during the National Anthem, is greatly admired by Jay Z and oddly enough, is mentioned in the New York Times article. When asked if he would sign Kaepernick if he were an owner, Jay Z responds with confidence, “Yeah. I dedicated ‘The Story of O.J.’ to him at the Meadows concert.” – an interesting position from a man who enjoys corporate backing from the very entity that disrespects Kaepernick’s movement.
What sets artists like Jay Z and Beyoncè apart from people like Colin Kaepernick, Dave Chappelle, and Harry Belafonte is one key thing: self-sacrifice. While no one can pretend to know what opportunities either of them may have turned down at one point or another, what charities they may have written checks out to, or what allegiances may guide their hearts, there does seem to be a few glaring discrepancies between what they claim to represent in the black community and the entities they choose to align (or not align) themselves with. In short, it feels as if their support for public issues are conveniently thrown when it positively influences their brand in the public space. And while that may or may not be intentional, it seems somewhat… self-interested. In a statement issued to Occupy.com’s weekly web program “Act Out”, Kiilu Nyasha, who joined the Black Panther party in 1969 had this to say:
“…were they to badmouth the capitalist system that relies on racism to keep us all divided and readily exploited, they would not get paid. Probably wouldn’t even get signed… I’m so tired of these so-called Black icons talking about ‘giving back’ when they shouldn’t be taking so much in the first place. They are, in fact, supporting, reinforcing, and perpetuating this racist, capitalist system with its gross inequities (mass incarceration and homelessness juxtaposed to a few individuals owning more wealth than the majority combined).”