Belafonte, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z: Are Black Stars Obligated to ‘Give Back’?

Belafonte, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z: Are Black Stars Obligated to ‘Give Back’?

HARRY BELFAFONTE: “They have turned their back on social responsibility,” opined the activist and actor about today’s black celebrities. (Photo: David Shankbone/Wikipedia)

Harry Belafonte is a legendary entertainer, known for his iconic performances in films like Carmen Jones, Buck and the Preacher, and Calypso. And who can forget his award-winning “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”? However, in a long and distinguished career, Belafonte’s greatest accomplishments arguably may be his involvement with the civil rights movement.

During the ’50s and ’60s, Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest supporters and endorsers. He fully believed in the message and movement that King worked so tirelessly to establish. Belafonte provided financial support for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC), and he also participated in several rallies and protests alongside King. Still a civic-minded crusader today at age 85, he continues to live his life as an outspoken activist for social justice and equality.

Belafonte has never been one to shy away from social commentary or hold his tongue in conversation. He has been known for his honest comments and straightforward critiques about politics, show business, and society.

In an interview last week with the Hollywood Reporter, when asked whether or not he was happy with the images of minorities portrayed in Hollywood, he caused a stir by calling out two famous black celebrities by name.  “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities,” Belafonte began. “But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example.”

JAY-Z AND BEYONCE: Is it fair to compare the altruism and social involvement of today’s stars to those of the civil rights era? (Photo: Ivan Nikolov/WENN/Newscom)

Belafonte believes that industry heavyweights like Jay-Z and Beyoncé have a social responsibility to be outspoken regarding issues of race, prejudice, and civil injustices, mainly because they have the social influence and public platform to do so. Janelle Harris at Essence echoed those sentiments. “There’s been an ugly dumbing down when it comes to acknowledging and addressing pertinent issues, even having empathy for and interest in what’s impacting our community. It’s an attitude of detachment,” she said.

She added: “I agree with Harry Belafonte. I think young people could be doing more. Twenty, thirty, forty-somethings. It’s not just the celebrities, though they’re certainly part of the vanguard for making philanthropy and activism cool, which is unfortunately necessary for some folks to get involved.”

Jay-Z and Beyoncé are definitely the closest thing the black community has to pop-culture royalty today. The hip-hop power couple topped Forbes list this year as the world’s highest-paid celebrity duo, raking in a staggering $78 million. But are they giving back?

Guardian columnist Tricia Rose wonders as much. She writes, “It is undeniable that today’s top black artists and celebrities have the greatest leverage, power, visibility and global influence of any period. It is also true that few speak openly, regularly and publicly on behalf of social justice. Most remain remarkably quiet about the conditions that the majority of black people face.”

Many celebrities often take on a non-controversial role or use their celebrity indirectly as a fundraising tool, rather than taking an overt stance to engage civically. Rose continues to say that her previous statement is not intended to, “discount their philanthropic efforts,” but to raise awareness. And Belafonte’s lament illuminates a fundamental shift in black popular culture.

“As black artists have gone mainstream, their traditional role has shifted. No longer the presumed cultural voice of the black collective social justice, it is now heavily embedded in mass cultural products controlled by the biggest conglomerates in the world,” says Rose.

FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Belafonte (center) with fellow actors Sidney Poitier (left) and Charlton Heston at the historic civil rights March on Washington, D.C., in 1963.

Rose notes that individuals like Belafonte willfully sacrificed their safety and lives by marching with civil rights protesters under threat of police violence. His commitment and contributions are rare among modern superstars.

She adds: “In the history of black culture popular music and art has played an extraordinary role in keeping the spirit alive under duress, challenging discrimination and writing the soundtrack to freedom movements.” Visionaries like Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone are a few that Rose believes understood that responsibility and made a conscious effort to better society through both their art and fame.

As for Beyoncé, the singer’s representatives did respond to Belafonte’s charge by citing a litany of the singer’s charitable acts, including funding of inner-city outreaches in her hometown of Houston, as well as donations to hurricane relief efforts in the Gulf Coast and humanitarian campaigns following the Haiti earthquake.

In fairness to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it is not for any of us to judge how they use their money, nor to pressure them into being more generous than they already are. What’s more, the issues in today’s society are quite different than they were during the civil rights era. So, it might be unfair to impose those kinds of expectations on today’s African American celebrities.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that we do need more influential people with Belafonte’s mindset to help us reenergize the black community. His contributions over the course of his career have changed the world for the better and have proven that entertainers can be important difference makers for change and justice.

Fifty Shades of Monotony

Fifty Shades of Monotony

SUDDENLY HOT: Author E.L. James at a New York book signing. Her ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy is a bestseller, but its erotic content has sparked controversy. (Photo: John Roca/Newscom)

You ever see a trailer for a movie starring one of your favorite actors and get super excited? You mark the date on your calendar, find as many sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes pieces you can and plan to see it opening night. The day arrives and you take out a loan so you can afford the overpriced buttery popcorn, Tropical Skittles, and calorie-packed soda. You sit through the previews, the reminder to turn your cell phone off and you anxiously wait for Will Smith/Hugh Jackman/Emma Stone to appear on the screen.

And then … the movie sucks. Not in the “it was OK” kind of way, but in the “B.A.P.S.” or “Soul Plane” kind of way. You feel duped by your favorite actor, the previews, and all the critics who failed to warn you.

This horrific feeling is EXACTLY how I felt after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestselling book that everyone’s been talking about. Sadly, this wasn’t the end of my turmoil. Optimistic idealist that I am, I read the sequel and was disappointed again. At this point, I was two-thirds through the trilogy and it seemed that God had forsaken me. But I read that weeping only lasts for a night and that joy comes in the morning, so I walked back into the torture chamber that is the third installment of the Fifty Shades series. I’m sad to report that morning hasn’t arrived.

The only joy I derived from reading these three books comes from the knowledge that I can warn you to avoid them.

Prior to ingesting the revolting pill that is the Fifty Shades trilogy, I saw nothing but rave reviews about the series via social media. To be honest, most of the feedback was vague — “I can’t stop reading it … I can’t put it down. It’s so addictive!” — but still positive. So, of course, as an avid reader of just about everything stirring in pop culture, from The Hunger Games trilogy to anything by Malcolm Gladwell, I had to check it out.

I could write a book, maybe even a trilogy, about the horrors of Fifty Shades, but I’ll condense it to the top three problems I had with the books. (And be warned, my reflections may include a few spoilers.)

1. No one told me it was erotica!!! Call me old-fashioned but I thought books like this came in a brown paper bag and required an ID for purchase. In all of my discussions of the book, no one mentioned that one of the primary themes of the plot involved the VERY adult subject of a sexual counterculture BDSM. My issue with the book isn’t that it’s erotica; it’s the idea that erotica is considered mainstream reading material. Since when does erotica make it to the NY Times bestsellers list? I was caught off guard, unprepared for it, and therefore, a bit nauseated by it. (Erotica is one thing; erotica I’m not prepped for is a whole ‘nother matter.)

2. The plot is implausible. Pardon me for wanting my fiction to make at least a little sense, but I’m pretty sure that there are several Disney fairy tales that are only slightly less believable than Fifty Shades. A few plot problems:

• What 22-year-old woman with several handsome and eligible men fawning all over her has NO idea that she’s attractive?

• What 27-year-old man who is savvy enough to amass a colossal wealth of billions of dollars is also silly enough to entrust it to a woman that he’s known for a few months?

• What are the odds that a billionaire who is a local celebrity has had an extremely deviant sexual relationship with over a dozen women and NO ONE knows?

GREY GROUPIES: Fans of ‘Shades of Grey’ author E.L. James snap pictures of the writer at her New York book signing. The trilogy, and its erotic themes, has struck a chord with ordinary housewives. (Photo: John Roca/Newscom)

3. The story is redundant. Possibly the worst crime committed by Fifty Shades is the monotony. You just want to shake Ana and tell her to stand up for herself; then you want to grab Christian and tell him to grow up. For those of you who must go through the pain of reading this on your own, I won’t spoil it. But I will tell you this. The characters don’t change or grow. They do and say the same things over and over. There are no plot twists. At the beginning of the trilogy, Ana is a girl with low self-esteem who believes her best friend is beautiful and she is mousy. In the third book, Ana meets with an interior designer and this same low self-esteem makes her feel mousy again. At the beginning of the trilogy, Christian is an intelligent but selfish man with a little boy temper. At the end of the trilogy, Christian is a man with a family and a little boy temper. What most people love about a book series is that you get to see the characters evolve and the story keeps getting better and better as it progresses. In this case, the story keeps going but it never changes.

Fifty Shades of Grey apparently began as an experiment in fan fiction, with British housewife Erika Leonard mimicking The Twilight series and giving her stories away for free on the Internet. Initially popular with bored housewives, the stories soon developed a cult following and exploded into a publishing phenomenon. Leonard, writing as “E.L. James,” now reportedly hauls in millions of dollars each week from her erotic trilogy.

In some ways, I can resonate with Leonard’s backstory. She turned an evening diversion into a literary jackpot. Who doesn’t love a good success story?

But that feel-good stuff only goes so far. My favorite pastime is reading and I’ve always looked at it as a temporary escape from my own personal reality. Leonard’s trilogy, however, wasn’t an escape from my reality; it was a departure from all reality.

I’d call it a waste of paper, but I at least was smart enough to purchase the e-versions. Save yourself from 50 evenings of exasperation. Leave Fifty Shades of Grey on the shelf.

What do you think?

If you’ve read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, what’s your opinion of the books? Harmless entertainment? Porn for soccer moms? How should Christians think about these books and their popularity?