In an interview with Alexandra Zawia of the Hollywood Reporter in August 2012, Harry Belafonte, said,
“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 Beyonce, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”
To which Jay-Z recently responded with a few lines in a song on his latest album, “Nickles and Dimes,”
“I’m just trying to find common ground/ ‘Fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a n*gga down/ Mr. Day O, major fail/ Respect these youngins boy, it’s my time now/ Hublot homie two door homie/ You don’t know all the sh*t I do for the homies.”
Mr. Belafonte is 85 years old and vividly recalls working with Martin Luther King, Jr. to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. The landmark piece of legislation outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. It also ended the unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. And, quite frankly it made it possible for many people of color including Jay-Z and myself to be able more fully participate in the American workforce. However, it does not mean discrimination and racism have completely disappeared from American society (that’s a discussion for another blog post).
Mr. Carter is 43 years-old and he’s considered one of the most financially successful hip-hop artists and entrepreneurs in America. According to Forbes, Carter’s net worth is estimated at nearly $500 million. Additionally, he has sold approximately 50 million albums worldwide, received 17 Grammy Awards, is an investor in the Brooklyn Nets, the founder of Roc Nation and the started the Shawn Carter Foundation. So, Mr. Carter is a shrewd entertainer and business mogul. Moreover, mentioning Jay Z’s name in some social circles elicits a laundry list of the negative things he represents – drug dealing, misogynistic song lyrics, and capitalistic exploitation to name a few. Mr. Carter is controversial because he only aligns himself (and brand) with causes that add value to his companies.
Obviously, Mr. Belafonte and Mr. Carter have two different perspectives on social responsibility. Alexis Garrett Stodghill from The Grio, wrote,“Belafonte along with entertainers such as Sidney Poitier and Josephine Baker, are part of an older guard of African-Americans in the public eye for whom it was as important to be politically active as it was to be wealthy and watched.” Further, Mr. Belafonte’s comment signals to the public that it is okay to publicly question another person’s charitable endeavors and stance on social responsibility.
As a young professional, I see this controversy as a larger reflection of the changing economic and social activism landscape. From Mr. Belafonte’s comment, I gather he is dismayed that current African-American celebrities do not share the same level of dedication to social activism that he and his peers had. If Jay Z feels he’s more effective being a entertainment media mogul, so be it. Why is it his responsibility alone to address issues of social injustice the first place?
And since working in the philanthropic industry, I have learned that social responsibility is a complicated idea to practice. And, it is a very personal choice. Yes, billionaires throughout the world are signing The Giving Pledge, but what does it say about larger society when a slight few are able to amass wealth and choose to help those without it? Additionally, not every wealthy person has the best intentions in mind with their philanthropic decisions. Heck, it makes me wonder why Belafonte isn’t publicly critiquing David Koch for his influence in American media and politics?
But at the end of the day, this public frenzy feels like a distraction from a bigger issue – protest and traditional charity are not enough to undo generations of deliberate social inequity.