Can Black Celebrities Shake America out of Its Racial Justice Slumber?

nce again, this is turning out to be a summer marked by prominent police killings of innocent black men. Black popular artists in American culture are complicating things for those fans who would prefer to remain silent or choose not to engage in the most significant civil rights issue of our time. These artists are shaking moderates out of complacency and extending our awareness to this crisis – just as their forebears did during the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

Black musicians and artists are key partners in dramatizing equality and justice for black citizens. The cynical among us may presume that artists who call for action against systemic, racialized police violence are simply jumping on a cause c̩l̬bre Рor that their earned privilege no longer affords them the right to be outraged. But that is a selective and ahistorical reading.

The other week, 23 artists working in music, television and film released a video in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They urged the public to pressure Congress and the Obama administration to act against police violence that disproportionately affects black American citizens. Their call, which was organized by Alicia Keys, is significant and it exists within a tradition of activism among black artists. 

Earlier this month, recording artists Jay Z, Miguel and Swizz Beats released songs that serve as protest and balm to a public overwhelmed by tragedy. Drake, an American by choice, penned a brief note of his concern in a post on Instagram, saying: “No one begins their life as a hashtag. Yet the trend of being reduced to one continues.” Solange sung an a cappella cover of Syreeta Wright’s Black, Maybe in solidarity with black Americans processing a fresh cycle of videos from body cameras and cellphone coverage by conscientious citizens.

It isn’t new that black artists are using every tool within their large platform to demand that we ensure the equal protection of black life in America. The strange and tragic thing we have to ask ourselves in 2016 is: why is it even necessary for them to do so?

When Billie Holiday first heard Strange Fruit, she immediately wanted to perform it to end her sets at Harlem Cafe Society. That was in 1939, years after Lawrence Beitler’s infamous photo of an Indiana lynching in 1930 reached a Bronx school teacher, who was so haunted and outraged by the image that he composed the poem and song. Strange Fruit sold more than a million copies, and history would declare it one of the most significant protest songs in the cause of civil rights and anti-racism.

When Billie died, Nina Simone would perform the song, among many others she composed herself. Simone’s cover of Strange Fruit is grotesque and melodic, sung with a powerfully controlled rage and gut-wrenching outrage at the crime of lynching. Her own protest song, Mississippi Goddam, was written in inconsolable heartbreak over the deaths of four girls in 1963, who were killed when a white supremacist bombed their church in Montgomery, Alabama.

John Coltrane also composed Alabama as part mourning, protest and rage over this event. Charles Mingus composed Fables of Faubus to protest against segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who famously tried to use the national guard to block the integration of nine black Little Rock students in high school. Jazz musicians were early in their efforts as advocates for the cause of equality, asserting the dignity of black life in America.

More than 50 years later, there is still much work to do: 1,146 people were killed by police in 2015. Between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings, 3,446 of them were black Americans, averaging to about 40 lynchings a year. It’s no surprise, then, that black artists are at the forefront of pushing for change.

Seeing leading artists or global superstars like Rihanna and Beyoncé; comedians like Kevin Hart and Chris Rock and actors Rosario Dawson and Taraji P Heson, evoke fatal interactions between black children, women and men and police is haunting. Perhaps the most haunting thing of all is how little has changed.

Jean-Michel Basquiat channeled his outrage at the 1983 police-related death of 25-year-old street artist Michael Stewart in one of his most famous paintings, Defacement. Basquiat, who was haunted by this death, recognized: “It could have been me.”

In 2016, black Americans fear not only that “I could be next”, but worse, “it could be my loved one.” And that is a fear that black Americans – both celebrities and everyday people – know all too well.


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