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Jay Z and the Bygone Era of Activism

“The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name,” wrote historian Daniel J. Boorstin in his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. The future Librarian of Congress essentially pre-defined postmodernism with his coining of pseudo-events: events that serve no real purpose than to generate publicity for itself.

As talented a businessman as Jay Z has proven himself to be, Boorstin would have a field day dissecting the emcee’s pseudo-lebrity. For while Jay Z might think himself a hero—he has long thrown around terms like ‘king’ or ‘god’ in describing himself, especially on his recent release, Magna Carta Holy Grail—there is little doubt that he is nothing more than a celebrity. A powerful and creative one, for sure. Just not a hero.

He might argue otherwise, though arguing is a skill he excels in. This doesn’t make it true. His recent exchange with Harry Belafonte, where the elder singer suggested that he might do more to help promote social justice, proves the point:

My presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough.

Jay’s political knowledge is perfectly on par with his own career: accumulate as much as possible and pretend that your fans/constituents can do the same. Trickle-down hip-hop. Only like its economic twin, it doesn’t work.

Sadly, Jay is woefully ignorant of the very craft he claims the throne of. Hip-hop was definitely not the first music born of struggle—Portuguese fado, Argentinean tango, Spanish flamenco and Indian bhajans are all examples of what suffering does to a human being. And like hip-hop, they have all encountered cosmopolitan periods in which the music was popularized by being beaten so bloodily that any trace of its original soul can only be found in scratchy vinyl field recordings. 

Hip-hop, at least in its nascent phase, claimed allegiance with the African griot tradition. The griots were poets who often spoke in rhymes while telling stories about their village’s political, familial and social injustices. Yeah, they had sex songs too (although women were usually respected). This tradition of folk storytelling continues today: Habib Koité warning of the dangers of cigarettes and Salif Keita heralding the plight of albinos are two recent examples.

Harry Belafonte is another. He has never divorced the calypso music he championed from his railing against injustices. Maybe it’s a case of mentorship—Belafonte cut his teeth with Paul Robeson—or timing, given his outspokenness on civil rights in the ‘60s. Just recently, alongside Stevie Wonder, another artist who has never been shy on shining a light on inequities, Belafonte strongly criticized Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

Is this simply a generational issue? I was struck at the similarities to the Jay Z/Belafonte debacle while watching the exceptional music documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom. The film looks back at the incredible and often unheralded role that background singers have played since Motown and through ‘70s rock ‘n roll. The use of black female soul singers in a predominantly white popular music culture helped change public perception during the civil rights era. It also made the music that much better.

The film’s producers went to great lengths to showcase a younger back-up singer named Judith Hill, who was about to ‘break’ when being featured as Michael Jackson’s main vocalist on his last tour. Of course, that never happened. Listening to the wisdom of elders like Merry Clayton, Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer as they describe their struggles—personally, socially and musically—made Hill’s constant lamentations seem trite.

The veteran singers spoke eloquently about their uphill battle in context of American history; Hill could only manage to complain about ‘not being a star yet’ after using her performance at Michael Jackson’s funeral as a springboard for her own career. She never lamented MJ’s death on its own ground, but seemed saddened for what it didn’t offer her.

Both Hill and Jay Z represent a modern generation where struggle is an inner turmoil about not getting what one wants and success is based on the capital acquired from your trade. Hill can’t quite come to terms with the fact that she didn’t win on The Voice, while ol’ Jay responded to Belafonte with a taunt in a rap lyric, going so far as to call the legend ‘boy.’ Belafonte’s response to that?

I would hope with all my heart, that Jay Z not take personally what was said…I would like to take this opportunity to say to Jay Z and Beyonce: I’m wide open, my heart is filled with nothing but hope and the promise that we can sit and have a one-on-one to understand each other.

One of Jay’s 99 problems is certainly tact, another humility. The argument over whether or not we can expect something more than the sounds coming out of our speakers from entertainers remains an open debate. And that’s fine if we call Jay Z a celebrity, which he has certainly earned the right to. A hero? Not even close. 

But, really, what else can we expect from a man whose main reason for having offspring seems to be to continue his business empire, not be a father? Not so much, I imagine.

Image: wikipedia


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