Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


Harry Belafonte & Jay Z: Beyond the Headlines

Many of you may have seen or heard some of the recent and critical exchange between Harry Belafonte and Jay Z regarding the disappointing absence of many of the most visible African American entertainers from discussions about, and sustained organizing efforts focused on fighting, racism and other injustices.

I'd like to share a few resources that help to place this timely exchange in context. Bare with the length, but understanding what's really behind this exchange is important.

Harry Belafonte's critique is not a new one.  He's consistently critiqued the relative absence of (younger) African American entertainers in the continuing struggle against racism and other forms of oppression.  Included among these younger entertainers, Belafonte has named Jay Z and Beyoncé.

Among the occasions during which Belafonte has offered this critique is an interview published on August 7, 2012 at The Hollywood Reporter.  During the interview, Belafonte discusses the relationship between his own life as an entertainer and his underlying commitment to the struggle against racism, sexism, war and other forms of oppression.  He goes on to talk about the dangers of an increasing and unbridled capitalism which is concentrating the world's wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people and institutions, and the potential for social media to challenge this through increased transparency.

It was after these comments, when asked whether he was pleased with the current image of 'minorities' in Hollywood, that Belafonte offered this additional analysis, referencing Jay Z and Beyoncé as examples...

Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking. We are not determinated. We are not driven by some technology that says you can kill Afghans, the Iraqis or the Spanish. It is all -- excuse my French -- shit. It is sad. 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.


Harry Belafonte's comments got a decent amount of attention at the time, and are now back in the national spotlight after recent reactions by Jay Z to this critique.  During a July 19th interview, Jay Z shared his own disappointment with both the substance of Belafonte's critique as well as the way the critique was offered - in the public (white) media, and holding up Bruce Springsteen as the positive counter on issues related to race and oppression.

Specifically, Jay Z says that his very example, his very existence and presence, is 'charity'.  Comparing himself to Obama, he suggests that regardless of what either of them say or do (Jay Z contends that he supports causes he has a personal interest in), because of who they are and how they got to where they are professionally (hard work, grind, bootstraps, etc., etc.), they represent the best examples of hope and possibility for young people.  You'll get the point within the first 10-15 minutes of the interview.



What becomes clear from the interview is that Belafonte and Jay Z are speaking very different languages in terms of understanding the meaning of 'social justice' - at least the fullness of what that means to Belafonte.  Those who have followed Belafonte's career know that he's not talking about 'charity' and/or how much money one donates to different causes, although that's important.  He's talking about the responsibility of people who have greater levels of public influence (i.e. celebreties, entertainers, etc.) to use that very celebrity and influence in support of justice, and in opposition to racism, sexism, war and other forms of oppression. He's talking about their responsibility to speak truth to power.

Harry Belafonte realized this during the early stages of his career.  He's spoken at length about Paul Robeson's powerful example in this regard, as well as the examples of numerous white entertainers who have used their celebrity to publicly push social justice-related causes.  His autobiography, My Song: A Memoir, and the companion film documentary, Sing Your Song, are great resources for more of this background.

Here's a relatively recent interview with Harry Belafonte, where he elaborates on his own sense of responsibility for advancing social justice causes...



Most recently, during an interview at a Trayvon Martin-related and youth-led protest in Florida, Harry Belafonte explained the context of his 2012 remarks (particularly that they were not intended as a direct attack on Jay Z and Beyoncé), and elaborated on the way other entertainers received his comments in the spirit in which they were offered, and have renewed and/or intensified their commitment to the kinds of struggles Belafonte speaks of.  Moreover, he affirms that he doesn't think the media is the place where he and Jay Z should be having this exchange, and welcomed an opportunity to talk with Jay Z one-on-one so they can get to a shared understanding and appreciation of one another's perspectives.  This is consistent with Belafonte's long-standing practice of working hand-in-hand with youth and others to share lessons and continue the struggle.

I absolutely hope this happens.  There's a great deal of unrealized potential within the African American entertainment community (as with entertainers more broadly), and a deep and unnecessary schism between some among our younger generations and our elders. Both Harry Belafonte and Jay Z have the level of influence among each of these groups to bridge this gap. Of course there are many people who know this, and will continue working to prevent that from happening. May truth and justice win, and may we all do our part to bridge this gap.

When it's all said and done, I appreciate the example Harry Belafonte has always shown, and his consistent leadership and activism in support of justice for African people.


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