Jay-Z is more of an activist than you think

 

In Jay-Z’s 2001 song “Renegade,” He shares the following lyrics:

[People] say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels

Do you [people] listen to music or do you just skim through it?

            I find these comments very poignant in light of Ms. Jenée Desmond-Harris’ article on the Root.com entitled What Young Activists Could Teach Jay Z. While Ms. Desmond-Harris bases her argument off of Jay-Z’s statement in response to Mr. Harry Belafonte calling on him to be more socially responsible, too many rap critics and fans alike base their opinion of rappers based on listening to one or two lyrics and use those lyrics to pass judgment on the entire life of a rapper. For his entire career, Jay-Z has been vilified as being only concerned about sex, guns, violence, and the glorification of his past days as a drug dealer. In reality, Jay-Z is more of a socially responsible activist than many of us know.

For my doctoral dissertation, I am writing an intellectual biography of Jay-Z from 1969-2012. In short, an intellectual biography situates an individual life in the context of ideas and perspectives as expressed and revealed in the life of an individual.  The goal of this type of biography is not just to chronicle Jay-Z’s life, but also to contextualize his life within a broader historical framework. As I am growing in my expertise on the life of Jay-Z, I have found at least three examples of how Jay-Z has demonstrated service beyond just using his presence as a form of charity.

The first is Jay-Z’s trip to several African countries as part of the United Nations & MTV’s “Water for Life” project. In the summer of 2006, as president of Def Jam Records, Jay-Z partnered with these two groups to use his global influence to get young people especially involved in the fight against the global water crisis. In his efforts to be more of a humanitarian and less of a hustler, Jay-Z partnered with the United Nations to build 1,000 “play pumps” across the African continent. These pumps use a simple merry-go-round that pumps water as children play with it. While Jay-Z, did not build every pump, he did participate in the building of some of these pumps and used his influence to get kids in America thinking about this crisis.

Second is Jay-Z’s charitable project with The Shawn Carter Foundation. This foundation has raised millions of dollars for prospective college students, and created a toy & meal drive for Hurricane Sandy victims. My mentor, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, once told me that he personally attended one of these fundraisers with Jay-Z and his mother where over $2,000,000 was raised in one night. This is not Jay-Z just showing up. He uses his foundation to call other people of influence to action.

Lastly, one can look at Jay-Z’s efforts over two elections to elect then re-elect President Barack Obama as can be seen in this video of Jay-Z with Beyoncé praising, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Obama. Jay-Z did not just contribute financially to Obama’s campaign and raise millions of dollars for him through fundraisers at his restaurant, he also campaigned vigorously across the country encouraging others to vote.  This is coming from someone who proudly claimed to never vote in his life.

By these three examples alone, one can clearly see that Jay-Z has gone way beyond using his presence as a present. While people criticized he and Kanye West for writing “luxury rap” during a recession with the video “Otis”, the Maybach that was smashed up was actually auctioned off to benefit victims of drought in East Africa. Jay-Z is using his platform to draw attention to issues that neither me nor our esteemed members of the Dream Defenders can do at an international level. It is not accurate for us to consider Jay-Z as someone who is not committed to creating change through his actions.  He has clearly demonstrated the opposite.

At the end of the day, we should accept individuals for where they are in the level of service they choose to provide. We need groups like the Dream Defenders that Desmond-Harris references in her article to create change on the local level and international superstars like Jay-Z to draw attention to national issues such as the Trayvon Martin case and international issues such as the earthquake in Haiti. While I did object to Jay-Z referring to Harry Belafonte as a “boy” in his song “Nickels and Dimes”, I have learned through my studies to go beyond Jay-Z’s individual lyrics or songs to look at the entire life of an individual who is actively learning how to be a better humanitarian through mentorship of individuals such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

We should, as Jay-Z suggests, go beyond the music and look at an artist in his or her totality, which is the same thing we would want in our own lives.  Love him or hate him, we cannot deny that Jay-Z is socially responsible and doing his own brand of activism. We need all hands on deck in our movement for social justice and I am glad that Jay-Z is on board.

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The future of youth: when your child gets called a monkey

 

“You’re a monkey.” “I can’t play with brown kids.”

 

If only I was fortunate enough for these to be the only insults I ever heard as a child. If only I had to deal with this instead of white kids wearing KKK masks to school in Boston in 1994 when I ran for class president. If only I had to deal with this instead of seeing my Harvard-PhD recipient mother be thrown in a jail cell because a random white girl told the police my mom tried to sell her drugs and the cop immediately took said white girl’s side (yes, we lost the court case). If only I had to deal with this instead of having police officers drive up to my car, flash the light in to ensure I was black and then pull me over and attempt to convince me that I was drinking even though I’ve never consumed an alcoholic beverage in my life. If only. In reality, the two quotations above are worse than all of the aforementioned experiences because they were said to my toddler daughter 2 years ago when she was 5.

There can’t be anything worse in life than seeing your children experience hardship. By the time I became a parent, I felt like I had dealt with all of my issues of racism. I knew it existed and that it permeated every aspect of American society. I was forced to join the anti-racism movement at a very early age growing up in Boston where my siblings and I were bullied everyday because of our background. Rocks thrown at us. Called all types of names at school. My oldest brother shot in the eye with a metal BB gun. Add this to the fact that between grades 7 & 12, I read one book in school by a black author, which was aptly titled “The Invisible Man.” America didn’t even have to work hard at making feel insignificant. By the time I had my kids though, I felt like I had this racism thing down. That was before my daughter came home and told me what her class[less]mates said to her.

When my daughter came home to tell me that her classmates told her this, it was depressing. I really thought I could shield my girls from issues relating to race until they were at least 7 years old. At that age we could have “the talk” that many black parents hate having with their kids but deem necessary in a world where racism exists. “You have to be two times better than everyone else because people expect less of you,” etc., etc. I was shocked to realize that I actually had to start teaching my daughter to be proud of her heritage at the age of 2 thanks to a little thing we call cartoons.

We didn’t watch much TV with our daughter during her first few years but it is almost impossible to avoid cartoon images when you’re shopping for your kids and they are with you. I remember one day I called my daughter a princess and she said quickly that she wasn’t one. It was easy to figure out why. Every image she saw outside of the house was of a non-black girl as a princess. I couldn’t even find products like pull-ups without these princess images on them. This was years before the movie “The Princess & The Frog.” Before that, not only were the princesses mostly white, their names also suggest that they are the purest girls on the planet. Just think: “Snow White.” “Belle” (“beautiful” in French). “Sleeping Beauty.” These names plus the images of them hold white girls up as the standard of beauty, even up until this day.

It didn’t take long for my wife & I to build our daughter’s belief that she was a princess too. Within a month or so, she was walking around telling people she was a princess and asking adults if they were kings and queens. It wasn’t that we wanted her to buy into this princess model as some needy woman who always needed to be pampered. It was more about showing her that she can be anything including a princess. When “The Princess & The Frog” movie finally did come out, I’ll never forget seeing my daughter just looking at the pillow set we bought her with Princess Tiana’s image. Though she had believed what we told her, children who watch cartoons have this weird belief that the cartoon images are real and real people on TV are fake. The black princess image on TV meant a lot for us and many other parents who heretofore had to buy “Dora the Explorer” merchandise to have an image as close to brown as possible. That’s just real talk right there.

Living with everyday racism as a father means always being prepared for my 2 daughters to come home with stories like this. Their hair is locked like mine so I have no issues when kids tease them and say “spaghetti hair” because I just tell them to laugh it off or play elsewhere if the kids don’t stop. Calling them a monkey, however, is different from calling them an elephant or a cat because of the racist history of blacks being compared to monkeys and apes in America. For a child to say that to my kids, that child had to learn that from their parents and that’s what is the even scarier—seeing racist behavior be passed down to the next generation.

The author William Cross talks about stages of racialized development. In short, he says that as human beings, we have experiences that take us all across the racial spectrum. For example, I was so happy to be a black man in America when President Obama was elected, but I was brought back down from cloud 9 when I went to do my diversity trainings at the schools I work in and my colleagues were told not to talk about Obama in the trainings because white teachers were still pissed off. As a white person, you may have a high when you see a multicultural rally for unity but then feel low as a white person when you see a racist attack by your neighbor against a non-white person. This is what everyday racism is about in America. Some days we’re up and some days we’re down.

My daughters motivate me to work even harder towards ending racism in America. Even if I cannot do that, my goal in my work as a diversity consultant is to at least give people the tools to analyze their own racist behavior or the behavior of others and be upstanders and not bystanders when they witness it. I don’t have time to dream about racism ending one day. I only have time to do the work as a youth speaker and diversity educator and continue on the path set for me by Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Harry Belafonte, and so many people of all races who fought and fight for peace. I do this work because “deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

 

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Navy Yard shooting should make you value life more

Whether it's the tragic shootings at the Navy Yard; the innocent bystanders shot by police in New York; the bombing that may happen in the city you live in right now in your own country or anything else; the phrase "You're still here" should mean more to you every single day you wake up. In this often volatile world that we live in, you never know when your number is going to be called. That is not a reason to live in fear. It is a reason celebrate life each day! Count every day you are here as a blessing and you will see a difference in your daily attitude. We were all put here to enjoy life, not suffer through it. Make each day your best and then make it better for someone else. You never know, your kind actions may even prevent someone from committing the next atrocity. Spread love and the world will follow your lead!

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Miss America: ugly in India, terrorist in America

In this video on CNN.com, I talk about how sad it is that Miss America is not welcomed by some in her own country America or India, her parents' homeland. I also speak about the beauty that she has in her platform on diversity and cultural competency. We can learn a great deal from her example.

http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1037865

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The future of youth: what 6,000 students just taught me

             The absolute best thing about being a motivational youth speaker hands down is travelling this country and globe and meeting incredible young people. I look forward to the start of every school year because I relaunch our national “Be An UPstander, Not A Bystander” tour. The goal is simple: travel to as many schools and organizations across the globe as possible and build with a community of like-minded young people focused on doing nothing short of changing the world one person, one school, one city, one state, one country at a time. Whether it's ending bullying or celebrating cultural differences, our goal at UPstander International is to build better communities. This fall so far has exceeded my expectations and more importantly, reminded me of the great work our youth are doing across the globe and proved to me again that our youth are greater than the negative images of them portrayed in mass media.

            In October, I spoke to over 6,000 students across Washington DC, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New York. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I partnered with NFL player Aaron Rodgers, actor Emmanuelle Chriqui, and the Enough! Project’sRaise Hope for Congo” campaign to create a rally for Congo. It was phenomenal event that brought the sports, acting, and music community together along with great students and called on the leaders at the University of Wisconsin to pledge to have their campus be conflict mineral free. In New York I spoke at 5 different colleges as part of the Price of Life’s campaign to end global slavery.  In Boston, I watched perfomed at one of the best showcases of youth artistic talent—the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center 19th annual benefit entitled “Twist & Shout.” In DC, I launched year two of the UPstander Leadership Training Institute at the Upper School Washington International School. Everywhere I went, I was more and more inspired about the future of youth.

            Anyone who believes that our youth are a lost cause needs a vision adjustment. Whether I am speaking at the poorest school in the most crime-ridden city in America or a top Ivy League institution, I see a bright future in the eyes of every young person I am fortunate enough to interact with. Some may have their brightness blocked by the cloud of low teacher expectations or a society that views them as a suspect before a prospect, but I can still see it. If we as adults could work a little harder to extract that brightness like we extract gold and diamonds from mines, we would find those diamonds in the rough and refine them until they shine. Most youth I encounter are passionate about something and just want to make a positive contribution to the world. It would be so amazing if we adults simply met them half way.

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The Future of Youth: hanging out with A-State UPstanders!

 

As a youth motivational speaker, I get to meet some of the best and brightest students on the planet.I had the truest honor to speak about the importance of being an UPstander and not a bystander at Arkansas State University. I was welcomed by the incredible students of the Student Activities Board before speaking to over 400 students. I even learned how to throw up the Red Wolves sign!

We covered a wide range of topics from standing up and being a designated driver to speaking up on issues of bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more. This was my first time visiting Arkansas and I hope it won’t be my last time. Arkansas State University is a special place with very special students doing great things. I immediately felt like a part of the ASU community. Anyone who believes that young people are not doing positive things needs to visit the home of the A-State Red Wolves!

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The holidays: are you thankful for family or discounts?

 

I am always sad to see stories about Black Friday. Most media reports highlight the fights and trampling incidents at malls. This year's video highlight showcased a woman using a stun gun on another woman during a fight. As bothering as the fights have been, I have noticed  a different trend that is also disturbing.

Each year, stores are pushing back their opening hours to take advantage of consumers and our desire for discounts. Now many stores are opening at 8 PM on Thanksgiving night. I've read stories about employees missing out on Thanksgiving dinner so that they can get to work. Families are changing or canceling their dinner plans just so they can get to the mall in time. In short, families are beginning to make shopping the new Thanksgiving tradition instead of family time.

Now I would be lying if I said I have never taken advantage of a Black Friday or Cyber Monday deal. I do my best however to remember the essence of the holiday seasons. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving or any other holiday, the general essence of the holiday season is supposed to be spending time with family and looking at ways to give back to your community, however you define it. Christmas for many has turned into a self-centered event where people are more concerned with what they are receiving as opposed to what they are giving. Thanksgiving is turning into a day to give thanks for early shopping opportunities and discounts instead of being thankful for your life and the lives around you.

My hope is that this holiday season, we will take the opportunity to express gratitude for those in our lives past and present. I hope we will look for more opportunities to give instead of receive. I hope that we will be grateful for each day breathing and use the time off from work or school to remember what's important. Discounts are great, but not at the expense of discounting our time with those who matter most.

 

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A poetic tribute to President Nelson Mandela

They say never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes
But what happens when the man has neither shoes nor socks to walk in?
Would you willfully walk that mile?
Would you accept all adversity with a frown and a smile?
Would you still run the race against racism with grace and style?
Would you work wearily to weave a tapestry of diversity and shared fate
Against those who continue to practice apart-hate?
Mandela
Would your heart shine bright when deprived of sunlight?
Mandela
Would your spirit sing a song of liberation when it’s denied instrumentation?
Mandela
As they tried at Robben Island to rob you of your soul
You literally rolled Rholihlahla with each punch as you crunched in your hole
We stand here because of you
We breathe freely because of you
And you walked the long walk to freedom with no shoes and socks
So that we will not have to
Mandela
You walked for those without homes and even the land-dwellers
Mandela
You, the son of Mother Earth
Father to a nation
Grandfather to our future
Brother to African liberation
From Cape Town to Kinshasa you led like no other
To remind us to put our arms down and hands forward to embrace one another
Mandela
Because of you the world is encouraged to up rise like Soweto
So-we-too rise above the mentality of the ghetto
To claim the universe as our humble home
Overseas maligned media would disgrace the Madiba
But we saw through their lies as we looked at tattered posters into your eyes
Your hope in humanity helps us fly Tran-skeis
And when peace did not work on the path for a free way
You chauffeured us on the highway of Umkhonto we sizwe
And when so many believed that there was still no way
Your perseverance and piety led all of us nobly to the Nobel in Norway
And so we will make peace our prize
And we will walk on this path of freedom with our shoes on and heads held high
In a world where courage and pride can be hard to find like a Black Pimpernel
Because YOU have walked this earth Madiba, the future for all humanity bodes well

Mandela!

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