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Artists’ Altruism: Apathy or Shifts in Activism

For decades, societies have debated the social responsibility of artists, in general, and African American artists, in particular. It appears in America, when faced with economic disparities, immigration issues, poor education, and debauched government and political leaders, African American artists are encouraged to “speak up and out.” In the fight for black liberation, artists took a leadership role in the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights Movement, and high-profile entertainers played a vital role. Well, history is repeating itself, and in the 21st century we seem to be faced with similar issues of the past. As a result, the internet is abuzz over the recent comments by Harry Belafonte concerning the “lack of social responsibility” of high-powerful African American artists with special emphasis on Jay-Z, and his wife Beyoncé.

In August 2012, Harry Belafonte was being interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter regarding the Golden Leopard Honor Award, which was bestowed on the legendary singer and actor by the Lacarno Festival. The prominent actor/activist “spoke out” against leaders in both the political and entertainment realms, for their apathy and inability to inspire change. The respected entertainer stated, “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility,” he accused. “That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.” This statement “speaks up” for a black consciousness that Mr. Belafonte bestows to Bruce Springsteen. The statement suggests that Bruce Springsteen is “more black” than high-profile African American artists. When I read this, I wondered, was this statement made for “shock value?” Was this a strategy to gain media attention, in order to spark a reaction from African American artists and their fans?

As a strategy, I found that in 1912, W.E.B. Dubois started dialogue in the Crisis magazine regarding the use of the arts in propaganda and advocacy for racial progress. During this time, Dubois and other activists touted that music was “the highest achievement of the race.” Dubois was adamant about delineating what was “good” and “bad” art, as well as criticizing artists for not utilizing their influence for social change-democracy, social legislation, education, and civil rights. So, Belafonte’s approach has an historical precedent in the fight for racial progress for African Americans. In this light, it appears that activists like Belafonte and others have used this strategy when the fight for liberation of African Americans is in jeopardy, and/or tensions and anxieties are high due to mainstream white Americans attempts to strengthen and promote white racist views in America. This revelation inspired me to ask in the 21st century, is this still an effective strategy for racial progress?

Interestingly, immediately following Belafonte’s article, researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago released results from their study about artists and altruism. The report found that, “people with an active interest in the arts contribute more to society than those with little or no interest in it. Whether you’re the performer or the spectator, your interest in the arts means you’re more than likely to have an altruistic streak.” To this end, history and current research suggests there is a connection between art, artists, art enthusiasts and altruism. This could explain why cultural critics from Dubois to Belafonte have felt that the social responsibility of major African American artists is to “speak up and out”. As powerful celebrities, it is their duty to use their influence over this altruistic segment of the human population for racial uplift. So this led me to ask, what are African American artists using their influence for?

Entertainers like Russell Simmons, Danny Glover and others were active in “Occupy Wall Street.” Jay-Z and Beyoncé have spoken up for Gay rights. Will and Jada have spoken out against violence in Philadelphia, Oprah Winfrey is building schools in Africa, and on August 23, 2012, NASA announced via press release, that the song, “Reach for the Stars“ by will.i.am would beam down from Mars Curiosity rover to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. According to NASA, ‘Reach for the Stars’ deals with will.i.am’s “passion for science, technology, and space exploration.” These examples reveal that high-profile African American artists are speaking up, out, and beaming down social issues. In this light, maybe their social responsibility has expanded or changed to address diverse areas of social concern. So, is it apathy or a shift?

In the past, white artist’s altruism for racial justice and civil liberties were at a whisper. Today, we have Bruce Springsteen. In fact, in 2005, Penn State held a conference entitled, “Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium.” There were several academic papers presented about Bruce Springsteen’s activism and his ability to inspire his fans to action. Over forty years ago, African Americans were “outside the hedges” of Rice University. Today, Rice is celebrating their centennial year with an art exhibition, entitled, “Tradition Redefined: The Larry and Brenda Thompson Collection of African-American Art” that runs September 13 through November 18, 2012. Rice University President David Leebron said, “Art is one of the important ways to seek to understand our society and express human experience, and this exhibition is part of Rice’s increasing commitment to bringing important works of art to our campus. We welcome the Houston community to Rice to enjoy this unique and remarkable collection, along with all our other public art.”

Historically, African American artist’s primary focus has been racial justice and equality. Today, high-profile African American artists are addressing gay rights and equality, violence in urban cities, unemployment, issues in Africa, and science education. In this light, maybe we need to redefine high-profile African American artist’s social responsibility. As America moves forward, African American communities may need to take another look at the activism of powerful celebrities. In fact, maybe we are in the “dark” regarding the shifts in altruism among high-profile artists, and their fans. It should be no surprise that high-profile African American artists would expand their influence, and alter their responses for racial progress. Instead of speaking out, they are creating corporations that hire people, working with NASA, building schools in Africa, and producing commercial products. So, maybe the issue isn’t apathy like Belafonte is suggesting. Instead, the issue is the lack of awareness of the shifts in altruism among powerful celebrities. So, the question of the day—Apathy or Shifts in Artists Activism? What do you think?

Aundrea Matthews
Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies
Area of Study: Religion & Theology of the African Diaspora, Race and Identity/Culture

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