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More on Harry Belafonte and Jay Z

Since my earlier piece on the Harry Belafonte and Jay Z exchange, a few more essays and discussions have come out that get directly at some of the points I was trying to highlight.

This isn't intended to belabor the point, but to highlight the underlying issues, which in some ways are larger than the two individuals involved in this particular exchange, and speak to a larger conversation that ebbs and flows within the Black community, and this country's larger national political space.

So here we go...

Jay Z appeared on Bill Maher's HBO show last Friday night (8/2).  During the first five minutes, Jay Z shares once more what his underlying take was on Belafonte's comments from a year earlier.  No huge new news here, but the basic points he makes are that:

  1. The year-old interview wasn't the right venue for Harry Belafonte to express his displeasure with Jay Z and Beyonce;
  2. Belafonte could have reached out directly, talked through his perspective, and potentially found a way to do some good work together; and
  3. That Belafonte also seemed to be grand-standing by calling him out in the interview, and then bringing Beyonce into it.

As I mentioned, you get the point within the first five minutes, with the remaining discussion about entertainment, the business side of the work and a brief dip back into politics.



Obviously, Jay Z thought the comments were made as direct personal attacks.  I didn't think so.  I saw him mentioning Jay Z and Beyonce to illustrate a larger point about contemporary artists and entertainers.  The point applied to them for sure, but also to them as representatives of this larger generation of artists and entertainers.

Moving on.

There was also an essay written by Gene Demby for NPR.  Demby also argues that Harry Belafonte and Jay Z are speaking two different languages, precisely because of the difference in how they've experienced American society, their social and political influences, and (presumably) their respective ideas about the role of an artist and entertainer.  If you understand this dynamic, you can understand why and how they can be talking right past one another.

Belafonte was a celebrity and a bona fide, full-time political activist. (Belafonte was a major fundraiser for Martin Luther King's Birmingham campaign, which was largely organized from Belafonte's New York City apartment.) For much of American history, the act of being black and famous was an inherently political act. Marian Anderson, Joe Louis, Bill Russell — just pick someone, really — all challenged the established order simply by being. Their presences weren't charity, per se, but they were of enormous consequence.

Black celebrityhood operates much differently now — and it's different in large part because of the efforts of Belafonte and so many of his contemporaries. Jay Z and so many of us who grew up listening to his music inherited a world dramatically different than Belafonte. Whatever world the next generation inherits will have its own distinct guidelines and understanding of what social responsibility looks like.

Belafonte is criticizing Jay Z and Jay Z isn't bowing in deference —after, all that's not how hip-hop has ever worked. (Belafonte has since said he'd like to meet in person with Jay Z to squash their beef.) Whatever you think about the merits of their arguments, they are operating from two deeply disparate cultural contexts. Belafonte was at the peak of his fame in a world where he fought just so people could exercise the right to vote. Now, we live in a world where Jay Z gets quoted by the first black president. Just 20 years ago, that last scenario would have felt like jokey speculative fiction.

Is it any wonder they're talking past each other?


I appreciate the analysis.

Also within the last week, there was a discussion between Bakari Kitwana and Mark Anthony Neal, exploring the broader historical context of these sorts of conversations between the elders and younger generations within the African American community, as well as between those who are critics of hip-hop (music and the culture) and those who are supporters.

The reality is that Harry Belafonte's activism, and his specific activities, cuts across generations, and includes youth and young adults from all walks of life.

More of this analysis comes through in these two parts of the conversation.  At times it gets away from the immediate Harry Belafonte and Jay Z exchange (so-called beef), although that's the point.  It's intended to explore the broader social and cultural context in which this discussion is happening, and the generational dynamics that play into it.




All of this having been said, and when you consider the prospect of the two of them meeting privately, working through any misunderstandings and differences in perspective, and then committing to  joint efforts, my previous sense of the whole thing remains...

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.


Truth-telling has to be at the center of all of these discussions, and all of this work, though, as truth, justice and an affirmation of humanity must always come before capitalism and individual self-interest.

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