Some A-listers, like Jay Z and Chris Rock, have stepped up to the plate. But the entertainment industry's silence is deafening, at a time when the movement most needs their voices.
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For over a week now, I have been working on an essay that began as a harsh critique of celebrities’ lack of involvement in the #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe protests. The silence has been deafening. But in that time, a trickle of A-listers have started to emerge, like Jay Z and Beyoncé, Chris Rock, Dave Chappell, Samuel L. Jackson, John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigan, professional athletes like LeBron James, Derrick Rose, and the St. Louis Rams, who showed their support by raising up their hands (“Hands up. Don’t shoot”)—though it seems it has taken a bit of Twitter-shaming and time to get them to take a stand publicly. To convince them to use their platforms, their brands, their money to the movements around the country to bring awareness to racial injustice, particularly as it relates to police brutality and the subsequent lack of accountability. And the list I mention of those who have come forward so far is still entirely too short. Those who have come forward are fearless fish in a sea of wealth and influence and I applaud them for it. But there is hardly substantial engagement by any of the entertainment industries.
Why don’t we see more actors, singers, rappers and other artists on the front lines? Moving beyond the photo op to the actual work and risk of taking a stand. Words of support are great but where are the magnanimous gestures from the Oprahs and Tyler Perrys? It’s okay to stand up for the families in Newtown, Connecticut (and yes, it is okay) but the heartache and pains of millions of people who look like you—or wait, how about just the grieving Brown, Garner, Gurley, Rice families—should go directly unaddressed and unacknowledged? Donating large amounts of money to create scholarships for Black male students headed to college is fantastic except for the tiny fact that some, like Michael Brown, don’t actually make it there because police brutality.
Dave Chappell used the opportunity of the 2014 GQ “Men of the Year” awards to stand with his hands up as paparazzi, well, “shot” him, to make a statement. Jay Z and Russell Simmons recently met with New York’s Governor Cuomo to discuss the injustices in the NYPD, and Jay Z was, according to the New York Times, a key player in smuggling “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to the Nets players prior to the Nets vs. Cavs game. (Although I still think he and Bey would have had a greater impact if he’d decided to forgo his front row seats next to royals William and Kate and instead took a front row in the protest being held right outside the Barclays stadium doors). Nevertheless, it seems Jay remembered his own words: “Like a momma you birthed me. Brooklyn, you nursed me. Schooled me wit hard knocks better than Berkeley … but you never hurt me.” John Legend and wife, Chrissy Teigan, provided food trucks for New York protesters. Samuel L. Jackson made a clarion call to other celebs via YouTube to get on board with the movement.
But the celebs who aren’t engaged seem to have submerged themselves in an illusion of equality, choosing oblivion over the sacrifice necessary to facilitate change. Either that, or they are afraid. Or maybe they are just that disconnected.
Yes, Mr. and Ms. Celebrity, this is what your silence tells us: You are either scared, you don’t care, your money means more, or you don’t have a clue.
Or all of the above.
Am I making assumptions? Sure, and maybe I’m wrong. Gosh, I hope I am wrong. Maybe there’s some grand plan happening behind the scenes that folks like me aren’t privy to. But what other conclusions are fans supposed to draw when so many celebrities are frighteningly silent at such a pivotal time in the fight against injustice? Why are some only willing to go “so far” in their support of the “justice for all” movement?
Protesting from the standpoint of progress—progress obtained by previous movements against injustice—can highlight pockets of apathy that can result in non-action. Put simply, it’s not hard enough yet for some folks. Some people aren’t quite desperate enough. They’ve made it. They have their “Warhols” and “Bugattis.” And the red blood of our Black children shed by blue shields can run fresh in these streets as long as it doesn’t mess with that green.
This is not only true for Dr. and Mrs. Regular Joe Blow in West Bubble, New Jersey. It’s especially true for any and every celebrity who, in light of everything that’s happened in just the span of two weeks—from the non-indictments of both Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, to the murders of Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, and Akai Gurley, to the uprisings happening everywhere from New York to L.A., can still find a way to remain conspicuously silent on the issue.
And be clear: A tweet here and there, while a start, does not count as activism no matter what your PR rep has told you. The vague “This is so terrible” or “I can’t take it no more” or “People are awake” statements on Twitter and Facebook don’t require any substantive action and therefore will only last as long as the time it takes for your post to cycle through the timelines and newsfeeds of your fans.
So Kanye, sorry to interrupt you, but you were awfully vocal during Hurricane Katrina with your “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” declaration, and death stare searing America through our T.V. screens. But these cops … not so much, huh?
Hey TV Preacher, are you really ready to take a stand and show the world what it means to be both full of faith and an advocate for the disenfranchised or nah?
Will we see you Mr. or Ms. Celebrity at your local march or protest or die-in? (How amazing would it be to see so many celebrities laid out on the ground in a symbolic homage to the men and boys of color who have lost their lives?)
Or will you simply march your way back to Barney’s, from your Bentleys, until this all blows over?
What if there will be paparazzi there?
Here’s some perspective: The tens of thousands of people who marched and protested this past weekend are many of the same people who watch your shows and movies and games; they buy your music; they seek out your sermons. These people were standing side by side, peacefully protesting injustice and demanding that the powers that be in our country acknowledge that #BlackLivesMatter in a real and significant way. They are hoping that somehow you are bigger and better than the lyrics of your songs, your lines in a film, your words in a book or those shots you made in a basket. They hope that your heart is bigger. That you are not just willing to give back when it doesn’t cost you anything but are willing to do something when there might be an actual sacrifice in doing so.
For some of you, that remains to be seen.
But here’s to those few of you celebrities who are standing up.
The disturbing part about all this is the fact that the precedent for the involvement of celebs in major movements in history—the civil rights movement, in particular—has long been set.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Nina Simone, and Sammy Davis, Jr. were just a few celebs who were actively involved in the civil rights movement. Davis refused to perform in segregated nightclubs and was a catalyst for their integration. Simone became the voice of the movement writing protest songs like, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Belafonte spoke out regularly against racism and segregation and often bailed protesting civil rights leaders out of jail. Lena Horne marched with Dr. King in Washington—a march organized partially by Ossie and Ruby Davis.
And before today’s White celebrities make the mistake of thinking they are somehow off the hook, check out how Hugh Hefner (yes, that guy) supported the civil rights movement. Read up on how Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman marched with Dr. King and risked their careers and reputations to stand on the side of right. Where are our generation’s Hestons, Brandos, and Newmans now?
The number of celebs who could engage in some way today is incomparably larger than 50 years ago. And frankly, today, many Black celebrities have the kind of ownership and wealth that means the risk of speaking out would not necessarily include a complete blacklist or, as in the case of the Hoover-led FBI in the ’50s and ’60s, a government investigation.
The involvement of people with influence is critical in any movement because these are individuals with platforms who, by taking a definitive stand, have the capacity to rally individuals, both black and white, behind an issue or cause. Yet some celebs seem to be buying into the neutrality trend. But neutral celebs, by definition, don’t stand for anything. They stay in their lane. They don’t disrupt the status quo. Neutral celebs don’t dig too deep into racial wounds, or any social inequities for that matter. And worse, neutral celebs are all the proof some people need in order to rationalize police brutality against people of color as simply being isolated events and not an insidious virus in our police enforcement and judicial system. Neutral celebs are useless when it comes to effecting real change.
If this pricks you, dear celebrity, than it’s probably because you are one of the ones who’s voices we need. I’m only calling out in love those who are called. The ones who feel the urge and passion welling up inside to do something major on behalf of the Mike Browns and Eric Garners and Tamir Rices. Those who find that blue pill hard to keep down. Please don’t wait too long; please don’t wait until another name is added the list of the dead. I suspect that your fans, when we find the time to stop and think about your silence, will be less than forgiving.
Or maybe you’d like Charles Barkley to continue talking on your behalf?
Gosh, I certainly hope not.
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