Beyoncé in her new visual album “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King,” released Friday (July 31) on Disney+, brings to life the music of her 2019 album, “The Lion King: The Gift.”
“Black Is King” reimagines the story of “The Lion King,” which told the tale of a young lion named Simba who flees his home after his father, the king, is killed, rediscovering himself and returning years later.
African Americans have been on a similar journey, said writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow.
“It is this human story of both Simba and Black people — that we are trying to find home, come back to home and live into who we truly and fully are,” said Benbow, who created the #LemonadeSyllabus social media campaign after the release of Beyoncé’s previous visual album, “Lemonade.”
Spirituality plays a huge role in that journey in “Black Is King,” which draws imagery from Christianity and traditional African religions.
“It is this honoring that Black people have always been a spiritual people, full stop, and that spirituality is robust and that to demonize it in any way, shape or form is also to demonize yourself,” Benbow said.
Here are five times religion and spirituality make appearances in “Black Is King.”
1. Moses imagery
“Black Is King” may be a reimagining of “The Lion King,” but the young king’s journey of knowing and returning home to himself and his people also parallels the story of Moses told in the Hebrew Bible, said Tamisha A. Tyler, co-executive director of Art Religion Culture, or ARC, and a doctoral candidate studying theology, culture and ethics.
Moses imagery in “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
At the time Moses was born in Egypt, Pharaoh had enslaved the Israelites and ordered all Hebrew boys who were born to be killed, according to the Book of Exodus. To save her son, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, placed him in a papyrus basket and placed it in the Nile River.
Pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moses and raised him. He went on to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt and is revered as a prophet in a number of religious traditions.
“Moses grew up to be a young man that helped his people find freedom. Moses became then the person or the symbol of liberation” for the people of Israel, Tyler said.
“Black Is King” begins with the image of a basket tumbling down a river.
Later, during the song “Otherside,” viewers see Beyoncé placing her baby into the basket as she sings, “Best believe me / You will see me / On the other side.”
Nicholas R. Jones, assistant professor of Spanish and Africana studies at Bucknell University, sees the Moses imagery in “Black Is King” as “this rooting and reclaiming of Christianity as a continental African type of religion in many ways.”
After all, Jones pointed out, Christianity was in Africa long before European missionaries and colonizers arrived on the continent.
2. The orishas
“The orishas hold your hand through this journey that began before you were born,” Beyoncé says as the film draws to a close. “We never forget to say thank you to the ancestors, noble and royal, anointed, our blessings in the stars.”
Orishas are “intermediaries between human beings and the higher divine” that are represented or manifested in nature, according to Yoruba spirituality, Jones said.
Beyoncé first appears in the film on the beach, dressed in white and holding the baby she presumedly has drawn from the water. She kneels in front of two men swinging censers as she describes “coils in hair catching centuries of prayers spread through smoke.”
“You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let ‘Black’ be synonymous with glory,” she says.
Beyoncé carries a child in the beginning of her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
Jones and Benbow describe the scene as an offering to Olokun, the orisha who has dominion over the ocean, depths, darkness and profundity.
“You are immediately tuned into the fact that this is a deeply spiritual quest, and it begins with an offering to the African deities who have carried our ancestors and who carry us,” Benbow said.
Beyoncé also is channeling Oya, an orisha often represented by the water buffalo, when she appears wearing horns and cowhide and smoking a pipe in another scene, Jones said.
There are other spiritual beings in the film, too, including the zangbeto — shown covered in palm fronds and climbing onto the hood of the adult king’s car later in the film — who “puts things back in order and essentially demands justice,” he said.
“For me, in ‘Black Is King,’ Beyoncé is really playing with all of these types of images, iconography, so on and so forth,” Jones said.
“I really see the message being a decolonial type of spiritual project, really calling both Black people in the diaspora and in continental Africa, as well, to sort of this decolonial project to return to your roots — explore your ancestral, spiritual, religious roots.”
3. The divine feminine
Throughout the film, Beyoncé embodies the divine feminine, imagery she has evoked many times before.
Viewers of her 2017 Grammys performance spotted references to Kali, a Hindu goddess who has been worshipped as the Divine Mother and Mother of the Universe; Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty; and the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christian traditions. Beyoncé also evoked images of two orishas: Yemoja and Oshun.
“Black Is King” offers glimpses of paintings in the background of several scenes in which Beyoncé is depicted as the Virgin Mary, haloed and holding a child.
Beyoncé depicted as Oshun in her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
She makes this clear in the song “Mood 4 Eva,” singing, “I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter / I am the Nala, sister of Naruba / Oshun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother.”
Like Oshun, Beyoncé is pictured in gold and yellow and often near water and waterfalls. She also is accompanied — as are several of Oshun’s avatars — by birds, including peacocks and vultures, according to Jones.
“Even in the diaspora, when enslaved Africans were clearly praying to Virgin Mary, we have to think about different forms of religious syncretism and the camouflaging of Catholic saints with different orishas or divinity,” he said.
Beyoncé returns to water again and again in “Black Is King.”
“Water” is the name of one of the songs in the visual album, featuring Pharrell Williams and Salatiel. The film features rivers, waterfalls, the ocean, recycled water containers, even a synchronized swimming sequence, and serves as the setting for rituals and offerings.
“Water signifies life. Water signifies purity. Water signifies hope and water signifies the ability to be reborn,” says a voiceover in the film.
Water is a symbol of rebirth in the Christian rite of baptism, Benbow said. It represents life, she said, pointing out many believe the continent of Africa is the origin of all life and civilization.
“And so to go back to water, which represents life, and to see these Black people in water, dancing in water, doing all of this around water, it is again embracing the truth that this life, these contributions, what we know to be true, to be us, they don’t exist without Black people,” she said.
Water also is part of the imagery associated with several orishas, including Olokun, Yemoja and Oshun.
In “Black Is King” water is “transformative,” Cate Young wrote for NPR.
“Its mythical power is reflected in both the pain of sailing Black people across endless oceans for subjugation and its healing potential to wash away the violence of that history,” Young said.
Beyoncé performs ’Spirit’ in her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
5. Coming full circle
One of the film’s most powerful moments comes near the end, when Beyoncé sings the triumphant anthem “Spirit” in what appears to be a sun-drenched chapel. She is framed in the window like a halo and surrounded by a choir dressed in purple.
Tyler sees the scene coming full circle from the opening Moses sequence.
“You can’t get that moment in ‘Spirit’ without seeing all of the orishas. All these different pieces that you see throughout the film lead up to ‘Spirit,’” she said.
“It’s a return to something that you understand at a deeper level now, so that the choir, the voices singing together, that moment in that church is deeper because you’ve reclaimed a part of yourself that people have tried to deny you.”
Even as she appears surrounded by the church choir, Beyoncé is dressed in yellow, evoking Oshun.
The moment highlights the way the spirit that has guided and continues to guide Black people is “at work in all places,” Benbow said.
“Beyoncé is a church girl, born and raised Methodist. She just released another visual album steeped in honor and reverence of the indigenous religious/spiritual practices of our ancestors,” she tweeted.
“Sis, if you have been looking for permission to explore and understand, let this be it.”
It’s June and that means music festival season is well underway. All across the nation, music fans are clamoring for tickets to concerts and festivals to see their favorite artists in person. This year alone fans have been filling stadiums to get in “Formation,” kicking it with Drake “all summer ‘16,” or booking flights for Made in America, and many of them are self-professed Christians. Is it wrong to love God and know the words to all of Beyonce’s “Lemonade” too?
The secular music debate isn’t a new one, and it’s not going away anytime soon. I remember missing most of the ‘90s boy band craze because I grew up listening to Gospel and Contemporary Christian music.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s become more apparent that many genres of music can be beautiful and encouraging while some songs can have a negative effect on your spirit. We live in a society where some artists are “crossing over” to win a broader fan base and bring people to Christ, including Erica Campbell’s attempt at “trap gospel” with her chart-topping single “I Luh God.” However, should all secular music be off-limits?
We know from the Bible that music is an important part of our Christian walk. It’s one of the many ways we can praise and thank God for His goodness. That’s probably why there’s basically an entire book (Psalms) dedicated to praise and worship! The first verses of Psalm 150 say it best:
“Praise the Lord!…Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with flute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!”
The Bible speaks at length about praising the Lord with song and how the angels rejoice and sing of His goodness. The Bible also hints that not every song is good: “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools (Ecc 7:5)”; “He put a new song in my mouth (Psalm 40:3)”; “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda (Prov 25:20).”
Nearly every time the Bible mentions music, it also includes the word “praise.” To praise is to express warm approval, or admiration of something, to show respect or gratitude, particularly in song.
When we sing about something, we are expressing some form of praise, and we must ask ourselves if what we are singing about is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and/or praiseworthy. Keep this in mind next time you’re trying to decide what songs to add to your playlist.
Remember that everything we let into our subconscious can impact our hearts toward God and our willingness to sin. It’s crucial to build strength against temptation by arming ourselves with God’s Word.
“It’s the little foxes that spoil the vine (Song of Solomon 2:15),” so what’s in our earbuds is important, regardless of genre. Here are a few perspectives from fellow Christians:
I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, and listening to secular music planted a lot of bad seeds in my heart and caused me to want to sin. Every song has a spirit attached to it and it’s a must that we guard our hearts. If you think about it, every secular song is either tempting you to have sex, giving you the urge to “turn up,” makes you want to curse someone out, kill someone, miss your ex, get sad and depressed, etc. I can’t listen to that music the minute I leave the church parking lot because it doesn’t glorify God. Personally, I have not listened to “Christian” music that [has] made a negative impact on me. I have been to several Christian concerts and when I leave I’m like “YAS! Let’s go evangelize!!!!” – Taliah, Georgia
Some of my favorite artists are Ne-Yo, Usher, Wale, J Cole, and Drake. I could [literally] write a thesis on that man. I can’t say if there’s one kind of secular music to listen to. Secular music is not for everyone. Some people desperately need gospel music or their respective spiritual jams to “shield” them from the external forces amongst us. For me, I know what feeds my spirit and what doesn’t. While I listen to majority gospel music, I have certain pockets of moments during my day when a certain album, song, or artist is needed to stimulate/relax my headspace. Not all music labeled “Christian” is good to listen to. Like anything else, everything in moderation. Music has agency. It’s an individual experience. – Myles R, Alabama
I listen to secular music because I’m a dancer and a writer; I like the sound and beats that I can dance to. I enjoy listening to current things because I like to be on top of things since I work with kids. I think music can be a form of entertainment. Who says that even praise and worship can’t be entertaining? I think the “more modern” Christian is someone who enjoys listening to secular music but still has a heart for Christ (Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” is a good example). I consider things like the music and the message, so I don’t listen to everything. It is a constant battle between feeding our flesh and our Spirit, but if music isn’t something you struggle with, then I see no harm in listening to it. Everyone has different convictions. – Faith L., Chicago
Some secular music is really good, like songs about social issues, love, and politics. Even though the song may not be explicitly religious, if done in excellence and not vulgar, it can be quite enjoyable, even edifying. Secular music wasn’t allowed when I grew up, and although I hated it, it made sense. Back then, I just liked the beat. Some lyrics made me wince but were rarely enough to stop listening. There is music labeled Christian or Gospel that has nothing to do with Christ– it glorifies man and his desires, treating God as the means to acquire blessings & breakthroughs instead of worshipping. It’s not good to call it “Gospel” when the purpose is to entertain. The minute you attach Christ or The Gospel, the expectations of your music changes. Also, telling someone “Don’t smoke, don’t drink and don’t chase after wealth and fame” is great, but unless the context is turning from sin and honoring God, He gets no glory. When a gospel artist makes the switch to secular or what many call “good art” it’s not wrong, but it bothers me because I see it as a lesser choice. – Andwele W., Marketing Director for P4CM (The Passion for Christ Movement)
It’s clear there are different views on what role music plays in our lives and how it aligns with our faith. There are artists like Trip Lee who use contemporary, mainstream musical techniques to glorify God and more traditional artists that stick to the Gospel genre like the Winans. While there are others, such as Tori Kelly, who maintain their musical career while striving to live in God’s image, and, of course, the secular artists, such as the Black Eyed Peas, who make beautiful songs like “Where is the Love?”
The important thing is to constantly evaluate what we allow into our mental space, guard our hearts, and ask the Lord to keep our thoughts pure.
Let us know what you think about the topic and what artists you’re listening to this summer.
We are fascinated with the Illuminati. If you have been following any celebrity of note, then you have to be familiar with the concept of the Illuminati. The secret society that controls the world from the shadows is supposedly filled with Black celebrities. Jay-Z, Beyonce, and even Lecrae, the Christian hip-hop artist, were named as members of this elite group of world takeover artists. Now, LeCrae as a member of the Illuminati is about as believable as Donald Trump as a crusader for social justice. Although it’s ridiculous and almost laughable, the question still remains, “What is our fascination with the Illuminati?”
History of the Illuminati Fascination
The Illuminati has always been a hip-hop staple since I could remember. There were always subtle references in songs. From the Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” to LL Cool J’s reference in the “I Shot Ya” remix, hip-hop from the mid-90s to now has had an obsession with the Illuminati. Ras Kass, Outkast, Bun B, and many others have all mentioned the Illuminati in their lyrics. In Tupac’s prime, he released Don Killuminati, and the reference was not missed.
It’s gotten to be a staple for the YouTube crowd as well. Tons of videos analyze different artists and how their music and videos are laced with Illuminati symbolism. The symbolism is usually related to the all-seeing eye or Eye of Providence—the famous image on the dollar bill—as well as references to light or pyramids. Also, skulls, goats, snakes, the sun, fire, and eagles are seen as Illuminati symbols. Basically, everything is an illuminati symbol.
Doing a casual search on YouTube will also reveal celebrity exposé interviews with the likes of Professor Griff of Public Enemy fame and others speaking of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. as Illuminati blood sacrifices. There is also a theory that the Illuminati-controlled hip-hop industry is influencing young men to turn homosexual.
Theories abound on how hip-hop is influenced by this supposed secret society. And hip-hop is chock full of references about the Illuminati’s influence over the entire world. But just who are the Illuminati? Where did this understanding of a secret society dominating the world even come from?
Who are the Illuminati?
The Illuminati was a group in the 18th century formed to oppose religious and cultic superstition. It’s ironic that this group that was formed to fight against superstition has now become the stuff of legend. Charles Theodore, a Bavarian ruler, used an edict to outlaw the group, along with a host of other secret societies. Subsequently, the group disbanded.
This didn’t stop people from believing that the group was still in operation. Soon after, they were accused of being responsible for the French Revolution. This was the first of many accusations that the formally disbanded Illuminati were supposedly masterminds behind, some of the greatest events in history. The Illuminati have been said to be responsible for events from Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo to the assassination of JFK. Even recently, they were said to have orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The organization is said to have risen to this kind of power because of their connection to the big world banks. Through these connections, they have consolidated power in the media industry as well. This has given rise to theories that different music artists and Hollywood stars are also members of the secret society. In fact, the list of people who are said to be members of the Illuminati is a who’s who in terms of the Hollywood A-List; Kanye, Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga, Emma Watson, Celine Dion, and Miley Cyrus have all been alleged to be on the Illuminati roster.
Why are we fascinated with the Illuminati?
So, the question remains, “Why are we so fascinated with the Illuminati?” There is a lot of energy and discussion about a secret society that no one knows for sure exists. The evidence regarding their existence is skimpy. The different signs and symbols used to rope celebrities into the Illuminati’s orbit are coincidental at best. What makes people suspect that a secret society is pulling the strings of everyone on the planet?
I think this goes back to the feeling of powerlessness many in underprivileged communities feel. Since things are so bad, then there must be a secret power doing this. This can’t just be normal life. There’s got to be an explanation for the evil we see in the world. There’s got to be a good reason for the injustice and oppression that makes its way to my neighborhood on a daily basis.
Said in another way, there can be no good reason for people to be losing their minds like they are now. Why is there so much Black-on-Black crime? Illuminati. Why is there so much pollution? Illuminati. Inflation? Illuminati. Unhealthy relationships? Illuminati. Pharmaceuticals with crazy, harmful, side effects? Illuminati. Every bad thing can be traced back to the Illuminati, and ultimately no one is responsible.
When it’s connected to celebrities, it’s kind of a different story. People want to know how someone like Jay-Z can rise to the top and make millions and they can’t. They want to explain away success. In their minds, for someone to be that successful, they had to sell their soul to the devil and join a secret society. Let’s push aside hard work, talent, and market trends. Let’s give credit to people we can’t even verify exist.
How Do We as Christians Respond to This Fascination?
It’s crazy that some people have actually accused Lecrae of being a member of the Illuminati because of his latest video. Yeah, the same Lecrae whose songs are laced with the fundamental truths of the Gospel. I don’t see how the Illuminati can use the story of the Creation, Fall, and redemption to their advantage. This is where Illuminati conspiracy theories become laughable.
The funny thing is in some way I agree with many of the Illuminati conspiracy theorists. There is someone pulling the strings. It’s just not the inheritors of an 18th-century secret society bent on world domination. When it comes to evil and oppression as a Christian, I believe there are invisible forces at work whose sole goal is to control people’s actions and direct them towards evil.
In the Bible, they are called demons and are led by Satan. In Ephesians 2, he is called the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience. The devil is bent on world domination by causing people to disobey God. When they don’t bend to his will, then he is set on destroying them. That’s his modus operandi.
At the same time, I’m convinced that, ultimately, He’s not the one pulling the strings behind it all. That position goes to God himself. There’s an attribute we give to Him called sovereignty. This means no matter what is happening, God is in control. He is superintending over world events and personal decisions.
Who knows, there might be a secret society out there, but I’ll take my chances with a faithful, loving, and compassionate God who not only has my best interests, but the entire world’s best interests in mind.
Janelle Monae, Grammy nominee and CoverGirl Model, poses on the red carpet for the 2013 Grammy Awards (Photo credit: Adriana M. Barazza/Newscom).
I just love awards season! Although I rarely watch the shows, I can hardly wait to get a peek at those red carpet photos. You see, I love everything about style and fashion—hair, shoes, clothes, makeup, and of course, accessorizing. Growing up, I thought for certain I was going to be a fashion designer. In high school, I spent several evenings walking the runway preparing for local fashion shows. Somewhere around eleventh grade, reality set in (I couldn’t even sew) and I set my sights upon more promising academic and professional endeavors. Although I have given up the dream of becoming a fashion designer, the interest in style has never really left me. I don’t have much time for fashion now, but it is certainly nice to watch art occasionally come together in that perfect shot on the red carpet.
We know when it happens. We all look for it. We know when they get it right and we know when something is just a little bit off…and we definitely know when Joan Rivers, the fashion police, and bloggers are going to rip them to shreds on the next day. “Oh no she didn’t!”
I actually get happy for the newcomers to the arena. When they step out of their limousines and onto the red carpet, I can almost imagine their excitement and the butterflies in their stomachs. I’m sure the red carpet makes several of those young girls, like our Olympic gold medalist, Gabby Douglas or the youngest Oscar nominated actress, Quvenzhane Wallis, feel like real princesses for the first time. They get an opportunity to celebrate their beauty and that is not a bad thing.
Although some of the women looked nice, thanks to LL Cool J, Justin Timberlake, John Legend, and Nas, the guys appeared to shine this year. In spite of the glitz and glam of the red carpet, we must go behind the smiles, diamonds, amazing dresses, tuxedos, fancy shoes, and high end make-up. Because of the rise in celebrity “news” and social media, we are constantly exposed to the hardships celebrities face throughout the year. Like the rest of us, they experience divorces, family strife, financial hardships (though on a much different scale or in the form of tax evasion), heartache, betrayal, ridicule, and medical problems.
Inside Truth Behind the Glitz and Glam
When we look beyond the physical beauty and realize there is a real person with real life problems, all of a sudden they don’t look so beautiful anymore. It’s kind of like when the comedian and actor, Owen Wilson, attempted suicide…I could no longer look at him and laugh. This year, I’m heartbroken over Chris Brown, who recklessly totaled his car the night before the Grammys. He appears to be a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, and all we do is watch for it to happen. It’s nearly impossible to watch the Grammys and not reflect on the lives and untimely deaths of gifted people like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.
The problem with the red carpet is not really vanity. Let’s face it, we are all a little vain…well at least I am. The trouble with the red carpet is the illusion that we are better than we really are. The red carpet makes us believe that if we just dress ourselves up a little bit on the outside, we can convince ourselves we are good people and have a great day.
Let me tell you, “I have done that.” I can remember a few occasions when I awoke from sleep feeling quite sick, yet knowing that I still had to go to work. So what did I do? I put on make-up so I would look better than I felt. Once I applied make-up and looked at myself in the mirror, I did feel a little better. It doesn’t appear Jesus has much heartburn with this practice. Jesus’ point here is, “Just because you are downcast, you don’t have to draw extra attention to yourself. Present yourself in a becoming manner, and get real with your Father while you do it.” We all need to look beyond the illusions and get real with our Father, God.
Our outward appearance does matter to God, and therefore, we should take care when considering the way we present ourselves to others. Likewise, Jesus’ acknowledges that in this world we will have trouble. The religious folk and Jews of Jesus day often fasted at the sign of trouble; they went and humbled themselves before God. That’s appropriate because God is the one who sees our true faces. He is not impressed with our talents, he is not impressed with the red carpet, and he is not impressed with our show. We find out who we really are when we are in his presence, and only then can we present our true selves to the world whether or not there are lights, camera, or action. Let’s be true, shall we?
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-Zand 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.