What Young Activists Could Teach Jay Z

Jay Z (Larry Busacca/Getty Images); Dream Defenders (Steven Pargett/Dream Defenders)
Jay Z (Larry Busacca/Getty Images); Dream Defenders (Steven Pargett/Dream Defenders)

(The Root) — When legendary humanitarian and activist Harry Belafonte slammed Jay Z for what he said was the rapper-mogul's lackluster use of his platform for social responsibility, Jay Z's response — that he's doing his part simply by existing and making money, and that his "presence is charity" — missed the point entirely.

That reaction revealed more than just a disagreement between two celebrities or ego-fueled defensiveness on the part a man who calls himself "Hov."

Rather, it was based in deep confusion on Jay Z's part about what exactly it was that Belafonte so urgently wanted from him. The statement's biggest problem was fundamental confusion about what social responsibility actually is. (Spoiler: It's not the same as "charity," and although it's wonderful to have personal, professional and economic success, that doesn't quite get it, either.)


On this topic, Jay could really use a lesson from the young activists — many of them college students half his age — who are organizing and demonstrating across the country to demand policy change and protesting Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's acquittal.

Just one example: the Dream Defenders, a group whose members range in age from 16 to 30, who moved into the Florida Capitol last Tuesday. They've demanded that Florida Gov. Rick Scott call a special session to consider "Trayvon's Law," legislation that would end racial profiling; repeal "Stand your ground"; and remove zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools, which they say funnel kids out of the classroom and into the criminal-justice system. Their members are sleeping on the floor. They expect more to join them this weekend.

And they're not alone. (Read The Nation's "From the Deep South to the Midwest, a Generation Demands Justice" for a rundown of current youth activism on issues from tuition hikes to immigration policy to assaults on women's rights.)

It's especially appropriate to point out that these activists are young, because while Jay Z's comparison of himself to President Obama — who is working as a full-time public servant, not just sitting in the White House exuding success and positivity — is ridiculous on its face ("My presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama's is. Obama provides hope"), some observers have actually deferred to Jay Z's muddled and weakened redefinition of what constitutes social responsibility, chalking up any inconsistency with Belafonte's view to a "generational divide." 


No. It's not a generational divide. Suppose on a hypothetical neighborhood-cleanup day, Belafonte chastised Jay Z for failing to bust out his industrial-strength street cleaner, and Jay responded, sitting in his car, "What? You should just be glad I exist. Did I mention I make a lot of money?"

That wouldn't reflect anything about their respective generations. It would simply reveal one man's misguided attempt to characterize doing exactly what he would have been doing anyway as somehow equivalent to the efforts of those who work specifically, tirelessly and selflessly for measurable improvements in the lives of their fellow humans.


The only divide, as groups like the Dream Defenders demonstrate, is about what social-responsibility-fueled efforts to effect change in the tradition of Belafonte and other civil and human rights activists actually look like.

Charity — giving back in ways including donating money or lending your image to a cause — is great, says 28-year-old Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew. But it's different from what he's doing and what Belafonte, who joined the group in Florida today, has done. (Which is a lot. If you need a refresher, watch this film.)


"Both are important parts of any movement. You need folks who don't have time to contribute their resources," Agnew says. "But social responsibility means working to transform your community in ways that will last, and in ways that are measurable — using your influence to put together a comprehensive, total package for change."

So it's perfectly fine for Jay Z to do exactly what he's doing, and it's fair for him to see himself as a net-positive influence on the world. None of us who are not Nelson Mandela (or, well, Harry Belafonte) have much standing on which to criticize him or anyone else for not doing enough.


But it's unfair and intellectually dishonest to act as if the residual benefits of the self-interested work the rapper is doing — or even the appearances he makes and the checks he writes — are arguably in the same category as the deliberate and dedicated efforts of others.  

Agnew, who's quick to state for the record that "I'm a big fan of Jay Z. His musical legacy is unparalleled, and even the status he's been able to achieve in pop culture is unparalleled," also says that he doesn't expect much from the rap mogul or any other artist when it comes to a real focus on social responsibility.


"But if that's his wish, it would mean more than showing up … It would mean having a keen sense of what's going on, and being present … This takes bodies, it takes people, it takes action, it takes dedication." (He contrasted Jay Z's approach to the activism around the George Zimmerman verdict to Talib Kweli's. Kweli, he said, called him personally and spoke to him for 45 minutes to learn about the specific goals of the Dream Defenders and how he could be supportive.)

Anticipating Belafonte's arrival at the site of the Dream Defenders' demonstration today, Agnew said, "We just want to soak up the knowledge and have his light shine for our people here. I want to learn more from him. I want him to do what he's been doing for decades, which is to encourage, to agitate, to move people to action, to move people to think about something bigger than themselves."


Jay Z won't be there, and that's OK. But it's impossible to deny that when it comes to examples set by the past and future faces of activism showing what it means to be socially responsible, he could learn a few things.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`