You have spent much of your career defying naysayers and the standards people have set for you. You refused to be intimidated by guys on the South Side of Chicago for your creativity. You broke free of being only a producer when you proved Jay Z wrong and became one of the biggest names in rap music. When music executives tried to control the content of your music, you released the now-infamous “Jesus Walks.” When Nike would not give you creative control over Yeezys, you took a deal with Adidas instead.
You are, by definition, defiant. And I love that about you.
Many in our community applauded your gall to stand on national television next to Mike Myers and utter seven words that shook the nation: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” We praised your courage in the wake of the United States’ failed response to Hurricane Katrina that ultimately resulted in the loss of many lives. You articulated the pain behind the tears many of us cried.
Despite criticism of your “Kanye rants,” people listen when you speak. Regardless of your delivery, many of us find value in your statements on classism and institutionalized racism. Your voice elicits responses from fans and critics alike.
Having said that, Ferguson is happening. Where are you?
I am deeply troubled by your sudden quietness in the midst of such powerful youth activism against police brutality and state violence. The killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has awakened a movement that even garnered responses from protesters in Palestine and Hong Kong, protesters who are fighting for their own just causes in their homeland but found a connection to the injustices that blacks face in the United States.
Yet you are silent.
Other members of the black entertainment industry have contributed in various ways to support the social movement that has erupted in Ferguson. John Legend, Jesse Williams, David Banner, Lupe Fiasco, Killer Mike, Outkast, J. Cole, Pharrell, and Tef Poe, to name a few, have voiced concerns and offered solutions and words of encouragement, and some have even participated in protests. Common, during a performance of his song “Kingdom” on the 2014 BET Hip-Hop Awards, was joined onstage by Mike Brown’s parents, provoking deafening silence in the venue, and Talib Kewli protested in the streets of Ferguson alongside other activists.
Yet you are ghost.
Fans have waited to hear from two of music’s biggest stars, Jay Z and Beyoncé. Unfortunately, I do not expect them to use their success as a platform to overtly address current prejudicial injustices in the black community. It would be uncharacteristic of them to suddenly staunchly shoulder this responsibility, given the cowardice with which they have broached the subject in the past.
You are different. You have set a precedent onstage and in interviews on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Breakfast Club, and let us not forget the “How Sway” moment on Sirius XM, when you unpacked being a black face in the white space of the fashion industry. I commend your work with Donda’s House and the Common Ground Foundation in addressing the challenges and violence that Chicago youths face, but you appear to have lost your voice on this rather grand social movement around Ferguson.
But this is not only about you, ‘Ye, or your absence from the discourse on Ferguson as some of your peers rise to the occasion. This is about the fact that without Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Sidney Portier, Ruby Dee, Muhammad Ali, and so many other black entertainment activists, you, Jay Z, Beyoncé, and other black entertainers today would have likely fallen particularly short of your success.
Last year Harry Belafonte made this statement about today’s black entertainers and their participation — or general lack thereof — in the struggle for justice in black communities:
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. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.
There was a more noble time when, among black entertainers, the label of “activist” was not only embraced but expected. Celebrities did not appear to be more concerned with keeping endorsement deals than addressing the chokehold of white supremacy on black lives. Black entertainers did not possess the privilege of ignoring community problems, because they were equally susceptible to brutalization, marginalization, and discrimination. Black entertainers did not use economic privilege to distance themselves from plight in the black community; instead, it was a powerful instrument in political agenda-setting and the initiation of change.
Action by black entertainers should in no way be mistaken for a substitute for the fervor needed from the masses to carry out the arduous task of combating institutionalized racism and discriminatory barriers. But I challenge black entertainers to join us in shouldering the responsibility of mobilization for social justice — the way civil-rights activists of the past feverishly did, setting the tone for us.
You said, “No one man should have all that power.”
I believe no one man should waste all that power.
Janessa E. Robinson
A fellow Chicagoan — “till Chicago ends, till we blow like Chicago wind”