Harry Belafonte, legendary entertainer and activist extraordinaire, sat down recently with the Hollywood Reporter for an interview. In this thought provoking interview, Belafonte speaks on how “the enemy” (aka oppression) has become less obvious and more elusive. Whereas in his day it was easier to pin-point the “No Niggers” signs and torch-bearing racist mobs, today things are a bit different. His point is easily illustrated when one takes into account the intricate systems of institutionalized racial inequities lining our society’s focal points (such as the educational and correctional systems). Belafonte maintains that this current day and age proves more challenging than that of the Civil Rights Era. Supporting this belief, he cites the absolutism of society’s power infrastructure, and a lack of widespread motivation/determination to demand social change in areas such as Stop-and-Frisk and Guantanamo Bay. Hypothetically, it would be assumed that to accommodate for this more advanced system of oppression, social activism would advance and intensify in order to contest it. Mr. Belafonte claims, however, that the opposite has occurred… and he’s disappointed.
The interviewer inquires as to whether the legend, who in 1964 bankrolled the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee with $60,000 in cash, was “happy with the image of members of minorities in Hollywood today.” His response was one that should get us all thinking and I encourage you diehard Jayonce/Beyon-Z fans to try and understand his comments here:
“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…”
Immediately, I’m sure the youth who are unfamiliar with the greatness that is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidant, Mr. Belafonte, are infuriated. “No he didn’t just come at my girl B and my man Jay!” Well, he didn’t. He came at Black Hollywood as a whole. Now you’re probably on Google trying to find the benefit concerts held by Jay-Z in Carnegie Hall, the lyrics and video to No Church in the Wild, the Fred Hampton quote in The Throne’s Murder to Excellence, and the list of 20 charities supported by Beyonce, however that isn’t the point. To understand this great icon is to understand where he’s from. Belefonte is from the era of Gill-Scott Herons, Nina Simones, and Sydney Poitiers. He is from the era before it was cool and commonplace for every celebrity to have some sort of charitable ties. While it is fantastic that so many celebrities give, mostly from genuine and kind heart, Belefonte argues that for us, the minimum just isn’t enough.
I recently read an article entitled The Weight of Being a (Young and Successful) Black Male by one Edward Williams. In it, Williams speaks of a crisis allegedly faced by the Black Male (and female) after he nears accomplishment of his goals. While I understood the basis behind the piece, I take conflict with the author’s terminology. This alleged crisis, he states, arises from the questions asked by many after they’ve reached the pinnacle of their career paths or educational goals: “What am I going to do next? Where should I go from here? What should I aspire to? Do I have to choose between money and my commitment to my community?” Well, this is no crisis; it is a blessing to even have the luxury of asking these questions. For me, as someone who feels indebted to the lives lost from slavery to Jim Crow, allowing me the opportunity to achieve what I have to-date, the next step is obvious. Where do I go from here? I go right back from whence I came and work towards the day that there is no such thing as a “successful Black male” but simply a “Black male.” Once wearing that white coat as Chief of Surgery at some hospital, it is my responsibility to the youth aspiring to shatter the statistics to be an example; It is my responsibility as someone who sat in their very seats to show them that it is indeed possible and tell them that they WILL do just that. It is my responsibility to see to it that their road is less bumpy than mine was, in hopes that they will do the same; until our road to success is as smooth as the rest of society. I must take the fruits of my hard work and use them to feed the starving community that raised me until we can all get our grub on.
As noted by Dr. Boyce Watkins over at KultureKritic.com, this concept of “social responsibility” is the key to Belafonte’s statements. I echo Watkins’ recitation of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben in saying that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Due to our history as a people, molested by the evils in society, there is a certain social responsibility held by each and every one of us; a responsibility to the future that our children will live in, whether we like it or not. No, it is not fair, but it is the reality of being part of a race of people who were once property… like literally property. It is the responsibility of being part of a race of people who are to this day suffering from some of the worst conditions in the country. Being on the stage that Black celebrities such as Jay-Z and Beyonce are on, a lot is to be expected of them. Making enough money to eat Ben Franklin salads for every meal of every day, couldn’t you do more to set places for your brothers and sisters at the dinner table? Referring back to the question of money vs. commitment to one’s community, is it that Edward Williams asked a question that’s more common than I gave him credit for?
Are the two mutually exclusive? I’d have to say not. Sure, one C or D-List celeb might have to sacrifice that Maserati and relinquish mercy to the Lamborghini but is that too much to ask for your community? Hell, if you’re going to have it, is that all you have to talk about in the music? Watkins takes note of the lyrical content of Jay-Z, similar to the majority of other rappers, referring to a lifestyle out of reach to the vast majority of their Black listeners (though I acknowledge the socially aware content scattered in Watch The Throne). This is where the responsibility shows that it isn’t about mere economics, but commitment to the social causes that one day formed the foundations of Black entertainment. Similar to the way in which I hold President Obama to such a high standard being on the national stage he is on, I must be fair and expect the same of the entertainers from my community. This was the beauty of Tupac Shakur, known by many as “the hood Prophet.” I encourage you to closely listen to the words of Pac in an interview while he was wrongfully incarcerated in Clinton Correctional Facility. The interview (called The Lost Prison Tapes, here) shows Pac discussing policing our own communities, building youth centers, fighting oppression and more. Most relevant to this discussion, he both preaches on and serves as the example of the social responsibility that our entertainers, like all of us, hold. Here’s a taste:
“Don’t support the phonies, support the real. How can these people be talking about how they so real and they don’t care about our communities?… Listen to the words that people say in they lyrics and tell me if that’s real to you. Listen to what they saying, don’t just bob your head to the beat. Peep the game. Listen to what I’m saying and hold us accountable for it.”
Of course, this is all a matter of choice. While I maintain that the mentioned responsibility is equal amongst us all, it is my choice as an individual to dedicate my life to it. It is as much the right of our Black celebrities to sleep on beds of green as it is for the Harry Belafontes to criticize and voice disappointment. If we ever wish to overcome the obstacles historically placed in front of us though, we’d better take heed of the words of greats like Belafonte now, before their spirits have left this world once and for all.
So, the choice is yours: You can get with this, or you can get with that.
UPDATE: Harry Belafonte’s Acceptance Speech at the 44th NAACP Image Awards