"I’m not Black. I’m OJ..." –Cuba Cooding Jr. as OJ Simpson
Jay-Z is a vocal critic of societal ills both in his music and in the art he creates as a film producer. His reach amplifies his voice.
But it wasn’t always so. Just four years ago, Jay-Z had a breezy response to those who said he didn’t do enough. In an interview he said his mere presence was charity like that of then-President Barack Obama. While that may have been true, it didn’t hit the right note and he came off sounding aloof and out-of-touch.
Things have changed. Both Jay and Bey have come out of the consciousness closet and are raising that proverbial Black fist. (Soon after Jay said his presence was charity—he and Beyonce attended a rally in support of the family of Trayvon Martin.) Beyoncé in particular has gone from is-she-doing-enough to is-she-doing-too-much in the span of one album.
In 2017—no one can be silent. Not even Jay-Z and Beyonce. Especially not Jay-Z and Beyonce.
In 2017—no one can pull back on who they are and who they represent and try to find a neutral zone. Well, you can. But there will be consequences because people are watching what you say and do and more importantly—what you don’t say and do.
In 2017—there is too much on the line when it comes to politics, natural disasters, social injustices and more. And thanks to social media and a ridiculously fast news cycle, it doesn’t matter if you’re a senator or a ballerina—we expect people who have a voice to speak for those who don’t. It’s not acceptable to say you don't have an opinion or don't understand the issues. (We’re looking at you, Chrisette.)
Jesse Williams’ explosive speech at the 2016 BET Awards reverberated nationwide and instantly catapulted him to the front lines of speaking out against police brutality and other injustices. He’s using that increased visibility to speak out and keep attention on the issues that are important to him.
Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality was just a year ago. He’s already become a lightening rod for discussing inequalities. And he’s also calling other players out—without saying a word.
Honestly, I’d never heard of Kaepernick until he entered the news cycle for his protests. But no one can deny the extreme necessity to support his cause. So it becomes striking when the bigger names in the sport don't join him or speak out in support.
(Or when people directly affected by police brutality make up reasons why they can’t boycott the NFL in support of Kaepernick.)
Of course, there are all sides to how someone decides to show their support and we shouldn’t judge how someone chooses to use their voice. But we’re living in an era where no one can sit by and just watch what others are choosing to do. Especially not the rich and famous.
And this is about more than money.
We of course expect our celebrities to open their wallets in times of national and international peril like the 2001 Haiti earthquake, the 2001 terrorist attacks or most recently, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
But in many ways, we need their voices more than their cash. Jesse Williams and Colin Kaepernick could have quietly donated millions to support their causes. But it would not have been as impactful as speaking out publicly and bringing the conversation to the masses.
True honesty, passion and public commitment are what our celebrities can truly do for us. I saw it done perfectly twelve years ago.
On September 2, 2005 there was a telethon to benefit those affected by Hurricane
Katrina. I was half-listening to the telecast while working. At one point, I looked up and
saw Kanye nervously staring at the camera.
“I hate the way they portray us in the media,” he said.
In my living room, my mouth dropped. I wanted him to get back on message before they
pulled him off the stage with an old-school hook. And yet, as a journalist, I desperately needed to hear more. Kanye was validating what so many journalists were trying to get out to the masses.
“If you see a black family, it says they’re looting,” Kanye said, his voice shaking. “If you
see a white family, it says they’re searching for food. Those are my people down there…they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us.”
If you’ve only seen this moment on YouTube, (which didn’t even exist yet!) I need you to understand what this meant. This was still a time when television mattered—things still moved relatively slowly. There was no social media to turn this moment into endless memes and gifs and collective digital standing ovations.
So I thanked Kanye under my breath for being brave enough to go off. My phone was blowing up from my fellow journalists: KANYE IS NOT PLAYING!
And he wasn’t done. While Mike Myers prepared to read from the teleprompter, Kanye
dropped the bomb: George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.
Kanye stammered a bit as he spoke and he was visibly nervous. Kanye didn’t look into that camera and go off script knowing that Black Twitter would have his back and make his name start trending with #IStandWithKanye hashtags.
What he did was risky. Not just edgy. He had something to say. He knew he’d have a platform. He took the opportunity to go against what he was asked to do and get a different (and necessary) message to the nation.
Kanye invented the modern day celebrity supporter.
Of course, things like celebrity telethons and concerts are practically as old as television. And over the years, it’s become de rigueur for celebs to lend a hand in some way for a cause or to support a national tragedy. (And yes, taking a celeb-selfie and posting it in order to bring more attention to the cause does count. )
Being a great singer, dancer, athlete, media mogul, politician—all of these things are respected. But in today’s era, a voice is expected even when the stage lights are dim.
In 2017—silence is loud.
(Photos from Left: Lester Cohen/Getty Images for NARAS, Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic, Lilly Lawrence/Getty Images)