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?

Jay Z (Brian Ach/Getty Images); Harry Belafonte (Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)
Jay Z (Brian Ach/Getty Images); Harry Belafonte (Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)

(The Root) — August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte not far away. It was one of the many moments in which Belafonte, throughout his career as an actor and singer, used his star power to leverage social change, whether it was producing his own show with black leads like 1970’s Harry and Lena or quitting another when he wasn’t allowed to hire an integrated cast. He’s also famous for delivering his untamed point of view without regret, like calling Gen. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice “house niggas” for their service to former President George W. Bush. He never apologized. With that legacy, it’s no surprise that Belafonte mentioned mega-stars Jay Z and Beyoncé negatively when asked if he was “happy with the image of minorities in Hollywood” during a 2012 interview.

“I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility,” Belafonte said. “That goes for Jay Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”

If there was ever an example of the quintessential “race man” — that earnest, dapper role model unabashedly committed to black uplift — it is Belafonte.

So when Jay Z responded to the 86-year-old singer and actor last month in an interview by saying that because he’s achieved so much, the older generation, specifically Belafonte, should be satisfied with whatever he’s done because his “presence is charity,” one can understand why so many African Americans and hip-hop fans were offended and embarrassed. The MC’s comments received mixed reviews, with some calling for the drug dealer-cum-billionaire artist and businessman to be more socially responsible, while others asserted that as an artist, what did the public really expect from him anyway?

Ultimately, the ways African Americans lend their voices for change are different in 2013 than in the 1960s. The Montgomery Bus Boycott might not work today, but an ironic Twitter hashtag can engage the country. Still, in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, the subsequent Florida boycott discussion surrounding “Stand your ground” laws and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the question arises: Is there room in contemporary pop culture for a race man?

What Is a Race Man, Anyway?

It is unclear exactly who coined the term “race man” but Yale Professor Hazel V. Carby attributes the idea to W.E.B. Du Bois. Writing in her book Race Men she says: “In 1897 … in his address to this august assembly [of the American Negro Academy], W. E. B. Du Bois declared: ‘For the development of Negro genius, of Negro literature and art, of Negro spirit, only Negroes bound and welded together, Negroes inspired by one vast ideal, can work out in its fullness the great message we have for humanity.’ ” Elsewhere, Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal writes that the term began to be used in the 20th century.

Booker T. Washington, Du Bois and Ida B. Wells are some of the purest high-profile examples of blacks who devoted themselves to uplifting their peers. As race men and women, these individuals worked tirelessly to push African-American culture forward in the fight for civil rights. Later, Paul Robeson, Belafonte and Muhammad Ali became examples in the entertainment industry of blacks sidestepping success for their political views. Now Dead Prez, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Jasiri X are some of the black artists at the forefront of the political conversation, but most lack the platform to move popular culture. But what about acts like Jay Z and Kanye West?