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)

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

“I’d love it if Jay or Kanye opted out of their Florida shows [in reaction to the state’s ‘Stand your ground’ law]; however, if they did, it would hurt the fans more than the state,” Ibrahim “Ebro” Darden, program director of New York’s Hot 97 radio station, told The Root. “Still, hopefully their actions could send a message so the people of Florida would activate to overturn the ‘Stand your ground’ law during the next voting cycle.”

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.