Is There Room for a Race Man Today?

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.

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"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.

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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.

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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?

"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."

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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.

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"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?"

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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?"

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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.

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"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."

As much credibility as West gained for speaking his heart at that moment, others like Sinead O'Connor and the Dixie Chicks, for ripping a photo of the then-pope on Saturday Night Live and openly decrying former President George Bush respectively, were banned from radio and other venues for their perspectives.

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In the days of Paul Robeson and Lena Horne, their punishment for supporting civil rights was more than removal from a playlist. Robeson experienced the near-annihilation of his career through heavy-handed McCarthyism, and Horne, like Belafonte, suffered Hollywood's blackballing practices in the 1950s. In comparison, contemporary tactics don't seem to be as dire.

"I don't know that there is a huge cost to speaking out," Soledad O'Brien, broadcast journalist at Al-Jazeera and producer of CNN's Black in America, said. "For entertainers, if they don't want to perform for an audience because they want to stand up against 'Stand your ground' laws, that's the way America was built. One of the great ways to get a groundswell and public opinion sway is to do that."

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How to Make Timely Change

As the tanning of America continues, some say black culture is so pervasive that it's hard to teach children to hate African Americans if they're listening to Snoop Lion on their iPods.

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"Racism is not just black and white," Darden said. "How young minority men are judged by the older generation extends beyond whites. It's deeper than race now; it's about culture and state of mind."

Others say the old civil rights practices are outdated.

"With the resources we have at our fingertips, there are more educated ways of voicing our displeasure than boycotting a state," Saleh said. "I don't think boycotting Florida is going to work, and Florida doesn't care if Stevie Wonder boycotts. But if we put pressure on the president to make a change, especially a guy like President Obama who's said, 'If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon,' something might change. A movement is needed but not with the same tactics we used 50 years ago."

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Even Oprah Winfrey agrees that her generation and the ones before hers must realize that social activism can be achieved in different ways, whether it is through a petition or a black brokering a lucrative deal in a room full of monied whites.

"This is what I think Harry Belafonte, my generation, everybody needs to know … people war in different ways," Oprah said recently during an interview with Jay Z's website, Life+Times. "Jay uses his music, his life, his artfulness and his ability as a business man. That is his protest against all the indignities that not only he has suffered, but generations before him have suffered."

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Still, entertainers build their empires on telling the stories of their fan base, whether real or aspirational, and therein lies a responsibility to be truthful and use that platform to help those who've supported their stardom. So perhaps it's not just a question of civil rights steps or a cultural shift, but also consumer-encouraged accountability.

"Another question worth posing is: Are we as audiences going to demand music that is meaningful, speaks to our current crises and suffering and inspires us as we pursue a better society?" asked Perry. "When we do, we will provide fertile ground for pop-culture icons to develop into visionaries. I think we have to beckon them to sing our songs." 

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Hillary Crosley is The Root's New York City bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter.

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