Old-School Beefs Revisited

Before Nas and Jay Z, there was Du Bois and Booker T. 

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; Nat King Cole; James Baldwin
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; Nat King Cole; James Baldwin Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; Ralph Gatti/Getty Images

It’s reassuring to see high-profile black people engage in debates about compelling and complicated issues. In a way, it shows that their money hasn’t made them complacent or detached from the realities of ordinary life.

Jay Z and Harry Belafonte don’t see eye to eye on how wealthy blacks ought to empower the communities they come from; Bill Cosby has an ongoing problem with the images and narratives put forth by rap music; and even Nas and Jay Z went bar for bar in their highly publicized rap battle, in which each made a case for how black public figures ought to conduct themselves, which social issues they should be addressing in their work and how success ought to be defined for black Americans.  

“You traded your soul for riches” and “you seem to be only concerned with dissing women,” Nas said of Jay Z in his 2001 song “Ether.” The song contained a boatload of witty one-liners about superficial things, but lost in all of that bravado was a genuine disappointment about how materialism and misogyny had come to inspire many of Jay Z’s lyrics throughout the years.

‘You traded your soul for riches’ and ‘you seem to be only concerned with dissing women,’ Nas said of Jay Z in his 2001 song ‘Ether.’

In his rebuttal, Jay Z took Nas to task for touting this “social activist” persona and yet continuing to be incredibly stingy on the philanthropy front: “[Nas] is all politics/depositing checks/he puts it in his pocket/and all you get in return is a lot of lip.”

Black writers, poets and entertainers have been quarreling since the dawn of the republic, long before the 24-hour news cycle and forms of social media like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook could document and perpetuate the back-and-forth.

The Root took a trip down memory lane to assess the opposing sides of some of the most memorable quarrels between influential black people. Some of the modern-day spats, like the aforementioned rap battle, are mere regurgitations of these old-school beefs. It’s interesting to see how some of these discussions have evolved over time, if at all.

1. W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington

W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were prominent thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who disagreed about how black Americans should go about achieving equality and parity with whites.

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