Why Jay-Z has no desire to be our generation’s Harry Belafonte

July 25, 2013

 

This past weekend, Jay-Z and Beyonce attended a Trayvon Martin rally in New York City, standing in solidarity with the slain teen’s family, their lawyers and Al Sharpton. Later that night, Jay-Z and Justin Timerberlake closed out their sold-out “Legends of the Summer” concert at Yankee Stadium by dedicating the song “Forever Young” to the 17-year-old whose death has sparked international outrage.

Jay-Z spoke about the anger he felt upon hearing of George Zimmerman’s acquittal and how he sees America’s race relations in a recent interview with Rap Radar’s Elliot Wilson. While it’s disappointing  to hear the rapper minimize the power of racism yet refreshing to hear him speak so passionately about the nonsensical “Stand Your Ground” laws, the most revealing part of the interview is Jay-Z’s comments related to civil rights activist Harry Belafonte. Explaining why he took offense to Belafonte’s critique of his lack of social responsibility, Jay-Z says, “My presence is charity. You know how many people are inspired by my story? Period. Cause it’s actual. It’s realized. It’s not hypothetical.”

Until now, no statement has more succinctly captured his outlook on social responsibility: “my presence is charity” explains it all. Jay-Z compares himself to President Obama as an inspirational figure who offers hope to people globally. He makes it clear that self-actualization and the ability to achieve massive success against all odds are powerful community contributions on their own.

These statements probably won’t come as a surprise to many who long ago stopped waiting for Jay-Z and hip-hop artists like him to mirror the activism of their elders. Those folks won’t be holding their breaths in anticipation of him and Kanye West boycotting Florida as many media outlets have been reporting. But this statement does explain why the music mogul prides himself on mentoring up-and-coming talent; he is committed to cultivating “the crop of next new legends” and celebrating the culture that made them who they are.

Ironically, this was at the core of Belafonte’s critique of Jay-Z and wife Beyonce. When asked to name “the enemy,” he responded: “Unbridled capitalism. The concentration of money in the hands of a very small group is the most dangerous thing that has ever happened to civilization.” In other words, it’s not enough that icons like Jay-Z, Beyonce and President Obama have been able to actualize the American Dream. Belafonte calls for something far more radical – a paradigm shift that critiques capitalism itself.

The relationship to capitalism is the fork in the road where Jay-Z and Belafonte will never meet; one man (Jay-Z) cherishes the throne that capitalism made him an heir to whereas the other man (Belafonte) believes the throne itself should be critiqued and transformed (or perhaps even dismantled). This intergenerational debate between two living legends is not merely a personal one; it gets at the heart of what divides the civil rights generation from the hip-hop generation. Where and when, if ever, will the two meet?

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Tom Jackman | July 24, 2013