Jay Z, Harry Belafonte, and the Burden of Celebrity

by: T.M. Brown

July 31, 2013

It wouldn’t be crazy to say that “Black Republican” is Jay Z’s most outspoken contribution to political discourse. (Yes, it’s a Nas song, but they split rhyming duties 50/50.) It’s bigger than the constant Obama name dropping, bigger than him asking Larry Gagosian to get some more colored girls in the MoMA, and bigger than the second verse on “99 Problems.” I know we’re probably past the critical mass of intellectualizing hip hop lyrics that probably don’t have any business being parsed and Rap Genius’d—to be fair, rock lyrics aren’t much better, there just isn’t a marketplace for ironic analysis of Adam Levine songs—but “Black Republican” doesn’t really need a closer look because the title beats ambitious English majors to the critical punch. “Black Republicans” is hilarious.

Jay Z Nas WILD music

When Nas released this song in 2006, he and Jay entered the world of the political hit record where you can be one of two things: catchy or devastating. Songs like “Black Republican” trace their bloodlines through songs like “Fight the Power” and  “Born in the USA” and “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” that were hits and received play after play from DJs who gradually came to understand that people requested these songs because they had crunchy chords or infectious choruses or good commercial tie-ins. In some, the satire is obvious from the production to the lyrics—”Black Republican” is more nostalgic than current, and the only reference to politics is Jay’s opening line; Country Joe’s song was openly absurd—but in others the desire to say something about the current state of American society was genuine until cynically co-opted by forces larger than the arts. (Like Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Presidential campaign.) The common thread is that these are all sonically fantastic songs, and their popularity is almost separate from their lyrical merit. (The exception, of course, is “Born in the USA” where people know the lyrics but have no idea what they’re saying outside of the chorus most of the time.)

On the other end of the lineless spectrum are the purely political records that become popular in spite of potential musical misgivings. Songs like “This Land is Your Land,” “Strange Fruit,” “The Message,” and even Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” become important artifacts of a society in flux and move the needle because of their liner notes rather than their composition. (The odd changeling here—yes, even odder than the vile transmutation of Billie Holliday’s haunting elegy of the South into a club banger—is Woody Guthrie’s proto socialist folk song becoming something of a camptime tradition sung in a cadence reminiscent of Irving Berlin’s steroidal, America-as-cathedral-of-patriots showtune.) These songs are too important to ignore but their musical legacies typically live on in the form of benedictions, reminders of fossilized moments where we were less than what we are.

Nas and Jay Z got a lot of radio play from “Black Republican”—it became the only memorable track off of Nas’ lukewarm Hip Hop is Dead, and I’m guessing Michael Steele might have appropriated the track if he had been on the national stage a few years earlier. Jay’s opening line “I feel like a Black Republican, money I got comin’ in,” is the beginning and end of the social commentary featured on the record; the rest of the lyrics are mostly reminiscing about friends from Marcy and Queensbridge and returning to the hood a conquering hero. But the first salvo is a truncated lesson in racial politics: The GOP is the party of rich, white people, and the only black people tacking right are wealthy amnesiacs. It’s a full message—and not altogether inaccurate.

But Jay is also part of a generation of artists that keep real civic engagement at arms length and strike some of the old guard as woefully misinformed and unengaged. Harry Belafonte went as far as to say that he and Beyonce “turned their back[s] on social responsibility,” during a 2012 interview and continued his criticism in an interview with MSNBC after the recent trial of George Zimmerman:

I made the observation that the highly powerful voice that our community has—Black America has—there is so much celebrity power that it was sad to see that the collective of the celebrity power had not been applied to bring consciousness to the inequities that we face.

Harry Belafonte Dream Defenders WILD politics

Harry Belafonte is a tough guy to go up against in a cultural impact cage match: he bailed out among others Martin Luther King, Jr. from a Birmingham jail, helped organize the original March on Washington, and almost single-handedly funded the SNCC during the Freedom Rides in 1964. Belafonte may be the most important American political musician ever, even though the only song of his you’re familiar with is probably “The Banana Boat Song.” As an artist, Belafonte understood how to use the megaphone set before him without slipping into solipsistic self-promotion and that entertainment and civic duty are not mutually exclusive spheres. He does not think Jay Z understands what that means.

And Jay Z isn’t really happy that Belafonte is firing shots, given the lyrics from “Nickles and Dimes,” a track from his recent album Magna Carta…Holy Grail: “I’m just trying to find common ground / ‘fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a nigga down / Mr. Day O, major fail / Respect these youngins boy, it’s my time now / Hublot homie, two door homie / You don’t know all the shit I do for the homies.” Indeed. There is almost nothing substantive in these lines: they don’t respond to Belafonte’s original criticism, don’t offer any actual counterpoints, and you can probably imagine Belafonte scratching his head over whether a really expensive watch is more important than posting bail for MLK. Jay’s last line is something familiar, though, and it summarizes a point that not only artists make but everyone who has a swollen bank account and a less-than-stellar record of altruism: “You don’t know what I do.” It’s ironclad in a way. None of us do know what Jay spends his money on or whether he’s secretly bankrolling soup kitchens and prenatal facilities under a pseudonym so making broad judgements about his philanthropic calculus is a relatively ignorant exercise. (Though judging from his own foundations finances, he doesn’t come off looking great.)

The other side of the coin—that “powerful voice” that Belafonte alludes to—is a matter of public record. Jay has supported gay rights and recently made some genuine but stumbling remarks about Stand Your Ground laws in Florida, but those statements cut so closely to mainstream thought that they almost seem irrelevant, that it would be more important is Jay Z were DMX-lite when it comes to homosexual matrimony or read the Wall Street Journal’s editorial section as gospel. More revealing is his recent non-rhythmic response to Belafonte, explaining to Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson, “…this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is.” The equivalency between presence and philanthropy isn’t necessarily false since there’s no doubt that Jay Z puts asses in the $1000 per plate seats, but if when you compare Jay to forbears like Belafonte then you can’t be blamed for realizing that Jay Z either doesn’t understand the formidable position of an extremely powerful performer in the public sphere or, more likely, doesn’t really care to understand it.

Jay Z interview WILD music

Blaming someone for not leveraging their position to its fullest is one of the stupid things we do as US Magazine toting celebrity trolls, but this isn’t a case of an athlete saying he “isn’t a role model” and parents firing a cliched rejoinder about “being a role model whether you like it or not” back. Jay has consciously decided that he will be a social commentator, but only when it is intellectually and professionally convenient to him. He talks about Trayvon Martin and Stand Your Ground laws without hearing his own voice, amplified by his celebrity and the planet devouring megaphone of the internet. He gives his opinions like we all do: quickly, emotionally, ignorantly—but he’s held to a higher standard than a buzzed 28 year-old waxing philosophical about the plight of black youth.

That’s the nature of celebrity and the reason we don’t feel bad about criticizing an absurdly famous and extremely wealthy musician fucking up is because this is not a burden that is thrust upon anyone, it’s sought out and labored for and taken. That rubric is applied doubly to people who have taken on the mantle of progressive causes, so when a Lady Gaga, a woman who has been manically active in the gay community, says something exceptionally stupid we take it more seriously than anything Kim Kardashian says about anything. Jay does not need to read and annotate Michelle Alexander in order to prove he’s knowledgeable enough to qualify as a Social Commentator, he simply needs to do what Harry Belafonte did 50 years ago: Be there, pick up his megaphone, and tell the world what’s happening.

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