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Empire State of Mind: Sell-Out Celebrities, Black and White

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In the face of creeping disfranchisement, unbridled corporate power, growing poverty, an expanding police state, 2.3 million people in cages, vigilantes and cops taking our children's lives, a presidential policy of assassination-by-drone, global environmental disaster, attacks on reproductive rights, a war on trade unions, a tidal wave of foreclosures, and entrenched racism camouflaged beneath a post-racial myth, why do we care if Harry Belafonte and Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter have "beef"?  Do social movements need Mr. Carter's money or power or influence?  Is justice a matter of charity or wealth?  So what if Carter believes-as he retorted in response to Belafonte's skewering of navel-gazing black celebrities-"my presence is charity"?

Let me say at the outset that I am not interested in spats between celebrities or on expending precious energy on conflict-resolution for the Negro one-percent.   Anyone familiar with the dictionary definition of "charity" will find the statement ridiculous, just as anyone familiar with Jay-Z's philanthropic work will wonder why he would say such a thing.  He has been a high-profile giver: he and his mother started the John Carter Foundation ten years ago to help fund college-bound at-risk youth; he tossed a million dollars into the Red Cross's coffers after Hurricane Katrina; he is a partner in the Global Citizen Tickets Initiative-the brainchild of the Global Poverty Project meant to hip pop music fans to world poverty and compel them to act (via sharing on social media, writing elected officials, donating money) while dropping big bucks on concert tickets.  And there was "The Diary of Jay-Z: Water For Life," the 2006 MTV documentary that raised awareness of Africa's water crisis.  Carter met with policy makers, advocates, and poor, water-starved families in Angola and South Africa, and committed to building 1,000 clean water pumps in Africa.  Two years later, the United Nations honored his work with a special humanitarian award.

Does this mean Belafonte was wrong?  Or Jay misspoke?  Or that we need to place 'Hova's' philanthropy and activism on a ledger against Bruce Springsteen's, the celebrity Belafonte deemed more socially responsible?  What does any of this do to advance a truly progressive agenda?

Focusing on the personal obscures what is really at stake: ideas, ideology, the nature of change, the realities of power, and the evisceration of our critical faculties under the veil of corporate celebrity culture.  I use corporate here not as an epithet but as an expression of the structural dimensions of how celebrity is made and its ideological function.  Celebrities endorse products; like any commodity, they have become "brands."  They may say and do very nice, uplifting, philanthropic things, but rarely do celebrities stand against the policies and ideas of neoliberalism and U. S. Empire.   More often than not, they embody the ideology of neoliberalism (valuing wealth, free markets, privatization over human needs) and Empire (U.S. military and economic dominance over the world).

Words and deeds of high-profile individuals do matter, but too often we pay attention to the wrong words and the wrong deeds.  Returning to Mr. Carter's reply, it is what he says immediately after his charity line that should concern us.  Applying his claim-that greatness alone is in-and-of itself a magnanimous gift-to the President, he adds: "Whether [Obama] does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough.  Just being who he is.  You're the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone."  


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