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)

The only divide, as groups like the Dream Defenders demonstrate, is about what social-responsibility-fueled efforts to effect change in the tradition of Belafonte and other civil and human rights activists actually look like.

Charity — giving back in ways including donating money or lending your image to a cause — is great, says 28-year-old Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew. But it’s different from what he’s doing and what Belafonte, who joined the group in Florida today, has done. (Which is a lot. If you need a refresher, watch this film.)

“Both are important parts of any movement. You need folks who don’t have time to contribute their resources,” Agnew says. “But social responsibility means working to transform your community in ways that will last, and in ways that are measurable — using your influence to put together a comprehensive, total package for change.”

So it’s perfectly fine for Jay Z to do exactly what he’s doing, and it’s fair for him to see himself as a net-positive influence on the world. None of us who are not Nelson Mandela (or, well, Harry Belafonte) have much standing on which to criticize him or anyone else for not doing enough.

But it’s unfair and intellectually dishonest to act as if the residual benefits of the self-interested work the rapper is doing — or even the appearances he makes and the checks he writes — are arguably in the same category as the deliberate and dedicated efforts of others.  

Agnew, who’s quick to state for the record that “I’m a big fan of Jay Z. His musical legacy is unparalleled, and even the status he’s been able to achieve in pop culture is unparalleled,” also says that he doesn’t expect much from the rap mogul or any other artist when it comes to a real focus on social responsibility.

“But if that’s his wish, it would mean more than showing up … It would mean having a keen sense of what’s going on, and being present … This takes bodies, it takes people, it takes action, it takes dedication.” (He contrasted Jay Z’s approach to the activism around the George Zimmerman verdict to Talib Kweli’s. Kweli, he said, called him personally and spoke to him for 45 minutes to learn about the specific goals of the Dream Defenders and how he could be supportive.)

Anticipating Belafonte’s arrival at the site of the Dream Defenders’ demonstration today, Agnew said, “We just want to soak up the knowledge and have his light shine for our people here. I want to learn more from him. I want him to do what he’s been doing for decades, which is to encourage, to agitate, to move people to action, to move people to think about something bigger than themselves.”

Jay Z won’t be there, and that’s OK. But it’s impossible to deny that when it comes to examples set by the past and future faces of activism showing what it means to be socially responsible, he could learn a few things.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.