Jay-Z is one of the most respected hip-hop artists in the world. His lyrical brilliance is second-to-none, and he does things on the mic that most of us could never dream of. Let’s just get that out of the way right now.
But one interesting thing about money, power and fame is that it can make you very defensive and sometimes even a little arrogant. Last week, Jay-Z spoke to Rap Radar about the recent challenge by activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte, where Harry said that Jay-Z and his lovely wife Beyonce could do more for Black people than get us to shake our b*utts and buy their records.
Harry’s words didn’t fall on deaf ears, and Jay came back with a diss record during which he called Harry a “boy” and basically told him that his time of relevance is over. I personally felt that Jay’s words were both inappropriate and disrespectful, and it seemed that quite a few others felt the same way.
In response to the Belafonte critique and subsequent backlash, here’s what Jay-Z had to say:
“I’m offended by that because first of all, this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am, just like Obama is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, that 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. Of course we want to challenge [Obama] to do better, but I felt like Belafonte just went about it wrong. The way he did it, within the media, and then he bigged up Bruce Springsteen. It was like, ‘Whoa, you just sent the wrong message all around. You just bigged up the White guy against me in the White media.’ I’m not saying that in a racial way. I’m saying what it was just the wrong way to go about it. My presence is charity! Just this guy who came from Marcy projects apartment 530C, to these places of me playing in Yankee stadium tonight.” –
Call me crazy, but I hear some of where Jay-Z is coming from. Belafonte’s decision to attack Jay-Z likely triggered an automatic defense mechanism that most mega-celebs have to “brush their shoulders off” when haters come after them. A better approach might have been that of Oprah Winfrey, who accepted Jay-Z for his imperfections, yet challenged him to do better. Oprah is joining a group of other billionaires who’ve all agreed to give half of their wealth to charity when they die. That’s one of the things that makes her special in both physical and spiritual ways.
On the flip side of that, I stick to my original position that Jay-Z should respect the fact that Harry is twice his age. Harry did more for Black America before the age of 30 than Jay-Z will probably do for the rest of his life. He came along during a time when dignity mattered more than diamonds, and standing up for your people meant more than getting cozy with corporate America. In fact, he risked both his life and his freedom for the Black community, and there isn’t a celeb I can think of who would be willing to do the same thing today. Jay-Z grew up in an era where greed became God, so much of what we’re discussing might be outside his sphere of understanding: I fully expect that he is going to ignore me.
I’ve never met Jay-Z, but I built a bridge to work closely with his friend, Russell Simmons. Our common ground leaned on the idea that we both believe that the Black community cannot prosper without committing ourselves to ending the criminalization of young Black men. I wish Jay-Z had joined the 175 other celebrities who signed our open letter the president, but for some reason, he did not.
One thing I would hope is that Jay-Z is willing to allow himself to be educated on two points behind his statement about Belafonte. Without judging too harshly, here are two things that Hova needs to understand:
The first point is that your presence might be meaningful, but symbolism only means so much. Jay’s comparisons to President Obama are very telling in that both of them seem to believe that it makes sense to compensate the Black community with your face, so that they can “watch the throne” and dream about becoming big shots one day themselves. Sure, this might mean something to some people, but it can also be a cop out for a lack of courage and commitment to doing what is right.
An example would be a father who believes that he is being a good role model to his son by simply coming home every day and paying the bills, or a husband who thinks he gave a woman a gift by getting married and doing nothing else. But this doesn’t include the value of spending time, making sacrifices, and all the other things that come along with being a good partner or parent. When it comes to public figures who’ve been given power and a voice, simply showing your face means nothing if your presence leads to little or no action on your part.
The second thing that Jay-Z might need to understand is that there is a difference between charity and activism. Charity is valuable, no question about that. But the Black community isn’t looking for Jay to fund a couple of scholarships or do a few free concerts. Black America needs public figures with testicular fortitude and the desire to stand up for them when they are suffering. Anyone who peeks at the quality of life data knows that, without question, Black people are suffering in ways that are unimaginable. Jay-Z and Beyonce have become like the megapastors who roll to church in a Bentley while half of their congregation is starving to death.
Slavery wasn’t ended with charity. The civil rights movement didn’t happen because Dr. King provided symbolism. Harry Belafonte never once believed that the depth of his obligation to his people simply meant showing his face and saying “Watch the throne b*tches and give me your last twenty dollars.” Harry’s actions meant connecting to the depth of his manhood, making tremendous sacrifices, marching, organizing, testifying, refusing to perform, boycotting, speaking out, taking risks and doing all that he could to prove himself to be a worthy soldier on the battlefield of equality.
Mind you, not every entertainer is expected to be a soldier like Harry Belafonte. He was certainly one of a kind. But Jay-Z can learn a thing or two from the Sports Illustrated poll which asked if Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali was the greatest athlete of the 20th century: Both men are champions. Both men were the best in their sports. Both men are admired around the world. But when it was all said and done, the contest wasn’t even close.
The reason that Ali dwarfed Michael Jordan is because for Michael, his inability to give to a cause greater than himself makes him a one-trick pony. All he is and ever will be is a great basketball player who sold a few gym shoes. Muhammad Ali transcended his sport and influenced people who’ve never seen a boxing match. He put his career on the line to save thousands of lives from the Vietnam War. He spoke up about racism during a time when his people were being beaten and killed just for being black. He sacrificed the peak of his career in order to stand up for his people. Unlike men like Jay-Z and Jordan, Ali never let a White man turn him into a boy by scaring him into silence. That’s why he will always be “the greatest.”
Jay-Z: Your people are suffering unemployment rates that are the worst we’ve seen in decades. We’re being locked away in a mass incarceration epidemic that is as bad as the Jewish holocaust. Kids are finishing high school without even knowing how to read. Young Black males who look like you are having their heads blown off on the way to school.
My question is: What in the h*ell are you gonna do about it? Just show your face and do a few cute little charity events? Or are you going to think like a man and stand up for the people you love? Your voice has tremendous power. You’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. What in the world are you afraid of? That White people are going to take it all away from you? It’s one thing for a poor man to be fearful of taking political risks for important causes, but when you are nearly a billionaire and just as fearfully silent, that is tantamount to a form of mental illness.
The final point I’d make to Jay-Z is this: You came out of the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, defeated the odds, and rose to the top of the world. This feat didn’t go unnoticed by the millions of 12-year old Jay-Z wannabes, many of whom live in the same projects that you came from. But the data says that 99.9999% of those young men are never going to get a record deal, marry a woman as gorgeous as Beyonce or fly private jets to foreign lands. A larger percentage of them are going to end up dead, in prison, uneducated, unemployed, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and all the other things that happen to countless young Black men across the country.
If your massive wealth, power, influence and fame only helps one or two people who came out of Marcy projects and ignores the other thousands of Black children who live in the same situation, then the blessings you’ve received from God have been wasted. God put you on this earth to be a king, but you’ve allowed those around you to convince you to be a mascot.
When you’re standing on the shoulders of giants, you can’t choose to be a spiritual dwarf. We’ve got 99,000 problems, and you’re only focused on one. That’s why Harry Belafonte dissed you.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the author of the lecture series, “The 8 Principles of Black Male Empowerment.”