What Young Activists Could Teach Jay Z

Like Harry Belafonte, Florida protesters understand that social responsibility means more than just existing.

Jay Z (Larry Busacca/Getty Images); Dream Defenders (Steven Pargett/Dream Defenders)
Jay Z (Larry Busacca/Getty Images); Dream Defenders (Steven Pargett/Dream Defenders)

(The Root) — When legendary humanitarian and activist Harry Belafonte slammed Jay Z for what he said was the rapper-mogul’s lackluster use of his platform for social responsibility, Jay Z’s response — that he’s doing his part simply by existing and making money, and that his “presence is charity” — missed the point entirely.

That reaction revealed more than just a disagreement between two celebrities or ego-fueled defensiveness on the part a man who calls himself “Hov.”

Rather, it was based in deep confusion on Jay Z’s part about what exactly it was that Belafonte so urgently wanted from him. The statement’s biggest problem was fundamental confusion about what social responsibility actually is. (Spoiler: It’s not the same as “charity,” and although it’s wonderful to have personal, professional and economic success, that doesn’t quite get it, either.)

On this topic, Jay could really use a lesson from the young activists — many of them college students half his age — who are organizing and demonstrating across the country to demand policy change and protesting Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Just one example: the Dream Defenders, a group whose members range in age from 16 to 30, who moved into the Florida Capitol last Tuesday. They’ve demanded that Florida Gov. Rick Scott call a special session to consider “Trayvon’s Law,” legislation that would end racial profiling; repeal “Stand your ground”; and remove zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools, which they say funnel kids out of the classroom and into the criminal-justice system. Their members are sleeping on the floor. They expect more to join them this weekend.

And they’re not alone. (Read The Nation’s “From the Deep South to the Midwest, a Generation Demands Justice” for a rundown of current youth activism on issues from tuition hikes to immigration policy to assaults on women’s rights.)

It’s especially appropriate to point out that these activists are young, because while Jay Z’s comparison of himself to President Obama — who is working as a full-time public servant, not just sitting in the White House exuding success and positivity — is ridiculous on its face (“My presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope”), some observers have actually deferred to Jay Z’s muddled and weakened redefinition of what constitutes social responsibility, chalking up any inconsistency with Belafonte’s view to a “generational divide.” 

No. It’s not a generational divide. Suppose on a hypothetical neighborhood-cleanup day, Belafonte chastised Jay Z for failing to bust out his industrial-strength street cleaner, and Jay responded, sitting in his car, “What? You should just be glad I exist. Did I mention I make a lot of money?”

That wouldn’t reflect anything about their respective generations. It would simply reveal one man’s misguided attempt to characterize doing exactly what he would have been doing anyway as somehow equivalent to the efforts of those who work specifically, tirelessly and selflessly for measurable improvements in the lives of their fellow humans.