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Is There Room for a Race Man Today?

Jay Z and Belafonte's generational beef aside, can a popular artist be dedicated to unpopular change?

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Despite lyrics like "Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mill/I ain't been rhyming like Common since" on 2004's "Moment of Clarity," Jay Z has been socially active in his own way. Through his Shawn Carter Foundation, headed by his mother, Gloria Carter, he helps underprivileged kids go to college, he pledged $1 million to the Red Cross following Hurricane Katrina and reportedly erected an educational trust for the two daughters of deceased New York Police shooting victim Sean Bell. He's also worked with the United Nations to bring clean water to African countries in need, campaigned for President Obama and appeared at July's New York City March for Trayvon Martin alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton, with wife, Beyoncé. Still, these activism points are safe, and none strays too far from popular public opinion.

Elsewhere, developing a legacy through albums like Blackstar and Black on Both Sides, Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def, recently protested the Guantanamo Bay prison conditions by filming himself undergoing force-feeding practices similar to those endured by inmates. Most likely, Bey's actions won't hinder him from garnering future acting roles or fielding questions about a new album, but when an act is as popular as perhaps rapper Nas, expressing controversial views is more complicated. When the Queens MC released his ninth solo album, Untitled, originally titled Nigger, the name was racially charged and polarizing, leading Wal-Mart, one of America's largest music retailers, to decide against selling his work.

"Nas is only going to do what fits his art, and with that album he felt like talking about the black experience," Anthony Saleh, the MC's manager, said. "Regarding Wal-Mart, their policy is straightforward, they don't carry any music with any cuss words. So how do you carry it, even if Nas made a clean version of the album, if the title is a curse word? I understood, though we never cared what Wal-Mart thought."

And retailers aren't the only outlets that can bar controversial artists.

"Radio stations are not obligated to play music they do not want to air," Darden said. "If a station feels like their audience is offended by an artist's actions, why would they continue to play their music?"

What's at Risk?

"Race men and women do exist, from actor Wendell Pierce, who is [opening grocery stores in food deserts] in New Orleans, to Viola Davis, who has advocated for federal TRIO college access programs as their funding is being cut," Imani Perry, Princeton professor of African American Studies and Law, told The Root. "I suppose the bigger question might be, can mega-stardom coincide with race-conscious political activism?"

Despite the controversy, Nas' Untitled was praised by critics and supported by fans. But artists who aren't established can't always afford to be so cavalier.

Bacon is referring to West infamously saying, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" during a Hurricane Katrina telethon in 2005.

"You could see on Kanye's face that he was doing the risk assessment in his head on-camera before his statement," Bacon said. "And that was in late 2005; he'd only released two albums, College Dropout and Late Registration, so he wasn't the established artist that he is today. But he made the decision to speak out, and people still came to the table for his art."