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Beyond Jay Z and Bey

Article published:
Photo of a black man (Jay Z) wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap

jayzOriginally published:

The recent interview with the legendary Harry Belafonte in, has caused a bit of a stir. Interestingly, the controversy wasn’t about Mr. Belafonte’s identification of capitalism as “our enemy”, or because of his belief that a Mitt Romney presidency would cause the end of civilization. The focus of all the cyber chatter was his statement saying many celebrities like Jay Z and Beyonce have “turned their back on social responsibility.”

He is correct! In fact, most of our community members have turned their backs on social responsibility. Our community organizations are not overwhelmed with membership requests. Of course the more exposure one has the more responsibility they have. However, if they don’t have a concept of what I call *communal responsibility at an early stage, we shouldn’t be surprised when we don’t see it when they become famous. The real question is what are we doing to make sure our neighbors, children, students, friends become communally/socially responsible. As an organizer I know that far too many of us expect artists to do our work. If we create the environment that won’t tolerate empty art, we will see much less of it.

Jay Z and Beyonce are easy targets. In my Community Organizing class at Lehman College CUNY, I teach the first step in engaging any issue is to identify what our collective and individual relationship to that issue may be. If we are dissatisfied with the level of inactivity and apathy in our communities, it is somewhat of a copout to target celebrities without examining, challenging and changing ourselves.

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Let me be clear, no one is above criticism and I whole heartedly support Harry Belafonte’s position. Social responsibility among celebrities today is almost non existent and when we do see it, the motives are questionable. However, when we relinquish the task of educating and uplifting our communities to celebrities and artists, we have failed. The flip side of this same position is the lack of support given to artists and celebrities who are socially responsible. We have the ability to support artists who do reflect the level of social responsibility we wish to see, but often times don’t.

The truth is we have the ability to create the next Ruby Dee, Miriam Makeba, Ossie Davis, Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, etc. We have the capacity to make sure the next generation of “celebrities” and artists reflect the true desires, needs and wishes of our communities. We can do this by modeling that behavior for them now. We can and must make time to participate in, contribute to and or support efforts to improve our communities. Small levels of sacrifice are necessary and there is no easy fix.

It is unpopular to say this especially before the upcoming Presidential election, but voting alone wont fix it either. The typical “get out the vote” campaigns are dangerously flawed. Sure, we can find creative ways to get people to the polls and convince them to pull a lever for change. However we manage make people believe (often times because it is implied) that all they have to do to create change is vote. This allows people to move further away from the necessary work needed to create real and sustainable change.

What can we do? We can start as simple as participating in our tenants association, block association, parent associations, community council, and or local community organization. A basic conversation with our neighbors on ways to improve our blocks can go a long way. In the early stages, this level of organizing does not require a 501C3 or Roberts Rules of Order, only a few committed people ready to change conditions for the better. We need only to look at our own skills, resources and capacity and put them to work. We know what we do well and how we can contribute.

Hopefully one day we will be able to create a culture that expects all members of our community to reflect the best of who we are, not just celebrities and artists. Until that time, we have work to do. In the words of freedom fighter Sekou Odinga “If you are a poet make revolutionary poetry, if you are an artist, create revolutionary art!”

* Communal Responsibility – The notion that individuals are inherently responsible for participating in the collective process of creating sustainable change in their communities. This concept acknowledges that we benefit from the spaces we exist in and transversely have a responsibility to contribute to the development of these same spaces. This also reflects the experiences of communities of color and our history defending ourselves from institutional marginalization and oppression. Additionally, the current statistics detailing the human rights violations in our community do not afford us the luxury to contemplate our participation in this process. Communal responsibility reflects our communities desire to actualize fundamental Self Determination.