Should African-American Stars Be More Politically Engaged?
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Recently Harry Belafonte caused a minor uproar when he gave his opinion on the state of minorities in Hollywoodtoday:
“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.”
Much of the backlash to his statement had more to do with his example of Jay-Z and Beyonce, the latter even released a paper thin list of philanthropic efforts to counter his statements, however little introspection is giving to his overall point about how many black artists and celebrities fail to use their platforms for influence outside of themselves. It may be easy to brush Belafonte off as an old hater, in fact, some folks already have, but consider that at the height of his career, Belafonte risked public ostracization by refusing to perform in segregated venues and marched with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – even at a time when it wasn’t cool to do so. He also financially supported the movement, including bailing him, as well as other protestors, out of Birmingham jail where King wrote his famous letter. And throughout his life, he has continued to be an instrumental voice for human rights, from protesting against apartheid in South Africa and the unfair embargo in Cuba to lending his celebrity to the genocide crisis in Rwanda. If anyone has the right to be critical of today’s black elite involvement, it certainly should be Belafonte.
Yet as many high profile black entertainers, celebrities and political and business leaders continue to enjoy the perks of power and personal influence their visibility has afforded them, most are reluctant to speak truth to power. In some cases, if that truth works against their own personal interest, some high profile blacks will intentionally work against the community’s best interest. We see it in rap music; we see it in Hollywood, we see it in politics too. Even writer Richard Hazell, with EurWeb, noticed the same trend among black athletes when he wrote the following:
“Are there any athletes that stand for something socio-political? Are there any that would be willing to risk fame and fortune in the modern era? Well, many risk fame and fortune over dumb stuff; sexual assault, spousal abuse, disorderly conduct, and DUI are but a few of the charges that have been filed against high profile athletes in the last 10 years. During Kobe Bryant’s trial for sexual assault and rape Nike and McDonalds dropped him within days of the allegations surfacing. So athletes are willing to act a fool on their own accord and risk endorsements, but are not willing to risk those same endorsements by taking a stand for a controversial political stance? It’s looking like a duck, it’s quacking like a duck, so it’s not a pigeon.”
Very few black public figures take an active stance for justice anymore. This includes Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American woman to serve as national security advisor and secretary of state. Recently, it was announced that Rice was admitted to the Augusta National Golf Club‘s, making her the first African American woman member. And the Black community cheered. Somehow this is supposed to be a milestone in Black history. This is Rice’s Jackie Robinson moment. We are supposed to clap, give high-fives and sing the last verse of “We Shall Overcome,” because finally they let one of us into the big house – of golf.