Jay Z, Harry Belafonte and Activism Policing

The measuring stick for activism, namely black activism, has been been an oft debated subject. No one can agree on how much work is enough, too little or too radical. In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, this subject has been thrust into the public’s dialogue and it has been intense.

Jay-Z recently did an interview with Elliot Wilson where he expressed his thoughts about the trial and criticism he and Beyonce received about their lack of social responsibility from legendary actor and activist Harry Belafonte.

According to Hov, the verdict had a profound effect on him.

“I was really angry, I didn’t sleep for two days. I was really angry about it. We all knew there was still a bit of racism in America but for it to be so blatant… Ask yourself the question, ‘Didn’t Travyon have a right to stand his ground?’ He was being chased, he fought back. He may have won. That doesn’t mean he’s a criminal. He won. If you chase me and you try to attack me and I defend myself, how can I be in the wrong? How is that right? This guy went to get some skittles and go back to watch the All-Star game. He had plans. He had no intentions of robbing anyone’s home. […] It’s a thing where it’s like a reminder of, ‘We still got a long way to go.’ It’s beautiful because this generation right now, they don’t see color in that way. […] They’re funding George Zimmerman because they want to hold on to their guns. […] We all know it was wrong.”

He felt what many of us felt and the points he made in this quote definitely have some validity but the interview took a turn for the ignorant when he spoke of Belafonte.

I’m offended by that because first of all, this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am, [is charity], 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.

I have my reservations about this comment but I also wonder why he felt the need to respond at all. What does he have to prove?

Frankly,  If Jay-Z wanted to give a valid example of supporting his community, he could have used the following picture:

This picture was taken at a Trayvon Martin rally in New York. This, an image of prominent black people attending at a rally with black folks from all walks of life, is a display of social responsibility.  He could have listed all of his other philanthropic acts such as meeting with former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to discuss water shortages and donations to Hurricane Katrina relief like his wife did after Belafonte’s comments were made public.

I have been in countless arguments with people and many of them have resulted in what I like to call conscious pissing contests. A conscious pissing contest is a discussion during which the participants list all of their community service efforts and displays of social responsibility in an effort to prove how conscious they are and how they’re more conscious than their opponents. I see these contests all the dang time and as much as I hate to admit it, I have provoked my share of contests. I used to have a very narrow view of what it means to be an activist and what made a person’s actions become activism. To old me, marching, sit-ins and rally were the beginning and end of activism. Then I read, joined organizations and talked to activists and realized that there are so many ways to be an activist and that a person shouldn’t have to prove themselves to be down with a cause. A cause shouldn’t have an hierarchy!

If you aren’t a marcher, there are so many other ways you can help. Writer Feminista Jones put together a nifty list of simple things a person can do to get involved and the point I agree with most is:

Stop disparaging each other’s efforts to make change, even if it’s small. EVERY effort will come together to bring about MAJOR change

Every little bit counts. No one shouldn’t be involved for show and cred, people should be involved because they want to bring forth change. As much as I respect Harry Belafonte and elders like him, I don’t think he or anyone else has the right to police other people’s activism and efforts.

What do you think of the Jay-Z/Belafonte feud and activism policing? 




4 thoughts on “Jay Z, Harry Belafonte and Activism Policing

  1. K AWesome (@raylene05) says:

    I get the general point here, but by using the term “policing” here, aren’t we suggesting that SOME actions are beyond critique because of the intent of the actor? If so, why doesn’t the same principle apply when people are well-meaning, but nonetheless racist in their actions? I think it undermines overall efforts for change when we focus on how a single PERSON as a whole is horrible because it will most likely make the person reactionary, but even so, I think people HAVE to call out regressive actions for what they are, regardless of who was the actor. The reality is that most Black celebrities who can code switch get a free pass when they essentially engage in “activism” that isn’t very sacrificial and sometimes is very openly self-serving; they have the privilege of being viewed as potentially intellectual and therefore they are assumed to know what the hell they’re talking about (while someone like Waka Flocka Flame instead is written off as unintelligent, regardless of whether his future actions are progressive). They have a ton of influence among people who may not have spent much time organizing or anything of that sort, so their words are important, even when they weren’t intended to be.

    For this very reason, these celebrities should be under HEIGHTENED scrutiny to remind us as a collective that we SHOULDN’T take for granted that individual Black financial success equals collective uplift. To me, calling this policing is like the “everyone is a feminist” thing: NOT everyone is a feminist, not everyone wants to be one, and people who’s livelihoods depend on feminist struggle should have the right to point out misogyny when it crops up, even if it occurs from a supposed ally. And let’s be honest: as someone who is familiar with grassroots efforts, I can see exactly why people get so touchy about this. In my own city, a serious attempt to deal with police murders of unarmed Black people was run into the ground by the mere entry of Al Sharpton (who did nothing but show up for the photo-op and pass a collection plate at a church that essentially blamed the victim for his own murder because of his life experiences).

    • Ashleigh L.A. says:

      Oh, I don’t think Jay Z is above critique. I just don’t like the pissing contests. The celebs were merely examples. When I set out to write this article, it was originally a critique of Jay Z’s arrogant ass but I decided to take another position on the matter.

      • Siru says:

        I really agree with what K Awesome is saying up there. Just because you’re Jay Z and you’ve had some personal success and acumulated some wealth, that does not translate into an uplift for the entire community. As a matter of fact, Jay Z has become a big part of the same capitalist machine that continues to perpetuate poverty for a large portion of the society, especially for poor people of color, probably for a lot of those folks in Marcy projects and other projects all over the country. I mean the man tried to captalize on the Occupy Wallstreet movement by making tshirts that say “Occupy the streets” and tried to make money off of that. yes we get it, you’re a hustla Jay. but is nothing sacred or beyond commodification? How is your presence a charity Jay? I mean if he’s not going to make any money from a deal with Barney’s, then why is it so important for Jay Z to continue to have a business deal with a department store that clearly has racially profiled black people?! why does he insist on doing the most predictably capitalist thing and continue to have business with this company?
        And who says you can’t criticize Obama? you absolutely most certainly can! He is a politician, elected for and by the people. he absolutely is the number 1 person subject to public scrutiny and disapproval if he’s effing up, if he’s sending drones to kill innocent people and allowing the multitude of industrial complexes in this world to go unchecked.

        the thing that irks me the most about Jay Z and the rest of the black misleadership class like Al Sharpton, as Black Agenda Report has so aptly named them, is that they truly believe that they can wear all the hats and be down with all sides of a struggle and have their cake and eat it too so to say. you can’t be this integral piece of unchecked capitalist accumulation of wealth and say that you’re down with poor people, just because you make an appearance here and there, and then expect people not to have an opinion on what you do. And Mr. Belafonte comes from an age where musicians had more things of substance to say about issues – yes like Springsteen and Marley and others – and Jay Z is sadly NOT at their level of speaking truth to power by any stretch of the imagination.

        No, Jay. your presence is not charity. it’s at best symbolism and it’s high time that we as a people stop being appeased by symbolic gestures and start demanding real support and real sacrifices from those that we allow to be leaders in our community.

        I really could go on, but I’ll stop here..

        Thank you for giving me the space to speak my mind.


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