Doing Something Hard Part II: Jay Z and Social Responsibility

I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is. You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone…I felt Belafonte he just went about it wrong. Like the way he did it in the media, and then he big’d up Bruce Springsteen or somebody. And it was like, “whoa,” you just sent the wrong message all the way around…Bruce Springsteen is a great guy. You’re this Civil Rights activist and you just big’d up the white guy against me in the white media. And I’m not saying that in a racial way. I’m just saying what it is. The fact of what it was. And that was just the wrong way to go about it. Jay Z

In light of Jay Z’s recent admission concerning the offense he took to Harry Belafonte’s critique of Beyonce and Jigga’s sense of social responsibility, I decided to repost my original response and to include new ideas in light of current remarks.

I. Harry Belafonte’s Critical Reading of Jay Z and Beyonce

Only Halle, who had watched her movements closely for the last four years, knew that to get in and out of bed she had to lift her thigh with both hands, which was why he spoke to Mr. Garner about buying her out of there so she could sit down for a change. Sweet boy. The one person who did something hard for her: gave her his work, his life and now his children, whose voices she could just make out as she stood in the garden wondering what was the dark and coming thing behind the scent of disapproval.

I thought about the text above, taken from Beloved, as I read Harry Belafonte’s critique of Beyonce and Jay-Z for failing to accept social responsibility. Those two, at least as conveyed through Beyonce’s camp, had no idea what Belafonte meant by his critique. The fact that Beyonce has performed at charity benefits and given money to worthy causes does not speak to the substance of Belafonte’s criticism. He didn’t say that she and her husband wouldn’t do what came easy to them, Belafonte was suggesting that they have not done what might be hard–like allow their images to suffer. Bruce Springsteen, the celebrity Belafonte endorsed, has shown a willingness to critically examine his cultural terrain, as “American Skin (41 shots)” certainly did. This song was inspired by the tragic police shooting of unarmed, Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by police officers in 1999. Though Springsteen insists that the song is anti-tragedy and not anti-police, this did not prevent the Police Benevolent Association from discouraging its members from supporting Springsteen’s concerts with their labor as he performed the song in venues across the United States. Springsteen has since dedicated the song to Trayvon Martin. I may be wrong, but I haven’t known Beyonce or Jay-Z to have taken such chances.

In a previous post, I wrote about the limitations of the nearly hour long performance of “Niggas in Paris.” While Jay-Z and Kanye commanded the stage with their hit song while actually performing in Paris, they never sought to make a relevant connection to the lives of those who are actually experiencing being treated like “niggas” in Paris. The women in the video below being dragged, pregnant and with their babies on their backs, know a little something about dehumanization and yet no connection gets made

between them and what it means to be a “nigga in Paris.” Why not? I suspect it’s because being socially responsible in this way would have cost too much. It would have meant that people might have been uncomfortable; that they may not have purchased more concert tickets; sponsors may not have offered more endorsement contracts.

I read an article in The New York Times about the huge return that Jay-Z nets on a relatively small investment in the Nets franchise. I found it incredibly troubling that Jay used his influence–or at least he allowed his image to be used to promote the idea that a new basketball arena would create jobs. Of course it will create low-skill, low-wage jobs but it won’t lead to the creation of work that will generate a middle-class lifestyle; minimum wage does not do that. Perhaps Jay-Z understands this about the kind of work that the arena will produce but he didn’t make his understanding clear to those who trust and believe in him. Doing so would have certainly influenced whether or not he was considered an appropriate choice to be a stakeholder with the franchise. As the Times article notes, Jay-Z benefits financially from his relationship with the Nets but Belafonte’s point asks us to consider whether Jay’s personal gain satisfies the terms of social responsibility.

When Baby Suggs in Morrison’s Beloved considers the sacrifices that have been made for her, she finds few people who have made difficult choices in her honor; in fact, only one person “did something hard for her.” Not only has this measure helped me to be clear about who has shown me love and who I’ve shown it to in my personal life, it has also helped me to evaluate social responsibility. When Harry Belafonte made his critique of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s philanthropy, he had Baby Suggs’s metric in mind.

II. Jay Z and Social Responsibility

In his most recent remarks, cited at the top of this post, Jay Z illustrates that he still doesn’t understand the substance of the critique Harry Belafonte leveled against him. Jay Z claims that by virtue of showing up, he performs charity work. In using the word “charity,” he shows how little understanding he has. Belafonte and concerned artists of his own era did not see themselves as providing or offering “charity;” instead, their cultural work served a socially transformative agenda. To that end, Belafonte was a member of the Association of Artists for Freedom, which set out its purpose through five points: 1.) To be a cultural adjunct, and not in competition with, the existing organizations fighting for civil and human rights in our country; 2.) To achieve a meaningful unity of all artists who are concerned with the great American moral and cultural crisis; 3.) To conceive and sponsor and encourage cultural and artistic activities in the Negro communities in particular, and in the entire American community as well; 4.) To help make art a part of the ordinary life of all people; 5.) In the main, our activities will be neither political, nor legislative, but cultural (qtd. in Keith Gilyard’s book John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism). This organization was formed in the wake of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that claimed the lives of Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14); as well as in the aftermath of the police killing of Johnnie Robinson (16) and white civilians killing Virgil Ware (13). How can Jay Z render his presence equivalent to this culturally relevant, rich, thoughtful engagement linking art to social change? Does he really think that his presence adequately serves as an abbreviation for the kind of careful planning and involvement put forward by the Association of Artists for Freedom?

Artists who assumed social responsibility during the 1960s voiced their opposition to injustice at the risk of losing their very lives. In Jay Z’s case, expressing support for an opinion widely shared does not require much or cost much. Jay Z and Beyonce should have participated in the New York rally opposing stand your ground laws in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. To quote Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” If Jigga’s mere presence makes a powerful statement, then the least he can do is show up. But just showing up doesn’t exemplify “great responsibility.” Certainly, he and his wife did something, but it was cheap; it didn’t cost them very much. This seems very problematic for a man who generally seems stunned by all the shit he can buy.

Jay claims that Belafonte didn’t show him proper respect when voicing his criticism–-especially because Belafonte held up Bruce Springsteen, a white man, as a model of an artist who assumes social responsibility. Seems to me that Jay Z missed the point that Belafonte doesn’t think highly of him as a civically engaged person, which makes sense given his own activist work. There is nothing about Jay Z that represents a threat to an oppressive social order. His claim that he inspires others through his rags to riches story supports an American myth that relates material goods and achievements to individual effort; the myth of meritocracy. So instead of pointing to his wealth as a sign of possibility, Belafonte’s criticism, I think, makes one wonder why Jigga chooses to focus on possibility in terms of its potentially positive outcomes. It is certainly possible for black folk to go from the projects to the penthouse in America, but it is highly unlikely. And the structures that enable such a rise help to predict this improbability. Children from these communities are likely to attend poorly performing schools, to confront an unmerciful yet hyper-vigilant criminal justice system, to find employment unsatisfying and low paying. Nothing about Jay Z’s rise to fortune and fame challenges these realities. His rhetoric about competition, respect, and achievement don’t do anything to change the structural forces that maintain networks and systems of domination and oppression. In fact, when he challenged Belafonte’s critique, he actually said that his feelings of betrayal weren’t racial though they highlighted the fact that Belafonte offered a white man as a model over a black man. To that end, Jay even undermines his own vision of the current state of race relations. If race loyalty isn’t an issue why did he make it one? Given that he made it an issue, what is its status? In other words, what do you need race loyalty for? How does his response to this question highlight the character and life of racism at this historical moment?

Harry Belafonte’s critique of Jay Z and Beyonce helps to expose their shallow understanding of capitalism and democracy. Sure, they can point to all the work they’ve done to create a market and to enchant consumers, but they don’t do anything that empowers or inspires citizens to create social change. I will not deny that they have given money for “charity,” which is important, but have they examined how this money responds to the need for social change? Their work seems to be more focused on encouraging ballin’ in a way that is very consistent with mainstream views. I’m sure Jay Z wouldn’t think so, but I find his views to be very conservative.

4 thoughts on “Doing Something Hard Part II: Jay Z and Social Responsibility

  1. Amen & amen! This is the most cogent commentary I’ve heard on this matter. If only Jay Z would read and comprehend this (and embrace such an ethos)…but then that might be too hard a thing for him to do for himself…

  2. You know you could have abbreviated this by simply saying Jay-Z is full of sh*t. “This is going to sound arrogant…” and “I’m not saying that in a racial way…” Well, he statement was arrogant. He is not the first Black President of the United States or anything remotely close. His rags to riches story includes nefarious activities. And he clearly had race on his mind when criticizing Bellafonte’s comparison between he and Springsteen. Actually, I would have loved for that to be about race. I continue to hear people say that the Trayvon tragedy is NOT about race. What? No no…WTF?! It was entirely about race. Trayvon was racially profiled, he was put on trial posthumously for his own death, and denied justice. It is all about race. Fans of Jay-Z laud his intuitive, unwritten style. It’s time for this dude to start planning his statements and even consider their racial impact. Or in this case, their lack of an impact.


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