A poem on African images in the media

Pulse of the Motherland

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover

But it has become appallingly clear

That you can judge an entire continent

By its media coverage 

You can color a whole continent dark

With the paint of poorly placed perception

When you rely on the media

To teach you your Africa lessons 

Because I come from a continent,

That the world thinks is a country

And to put it bluntly,

We’re all HIV positive

Until proven negative

In the eyes of the media 

It’s like Africa is either one big safari

Or Kalahari with seethin’ heathens

With no sense of religion

And home to animals and animism 

Because TV renditions of African afflictions

Have created a depiction

Of a land of savages

Where the world’s most dreadful diseases

Exceed the law of averages

And since American TV

Only shows the ravages of a select few nations

Most Americans juxtapose the mother of civilization

With phrases like “damnation” and “starvation” 

So if we don’t control our own images,

We can’t expect to see

A true representation of our beauty 

Most non-Africans believe that the most

Africa has given to the world

Are phrases like “Hakuna mtata”

And “Asante sana squash banana”

Along with exotic vacations in remote locations

‘Cause I’ve never heard an American TV news station

Even say we’re made up of 54 nations 

In the eyes of the media,

We’re just underdeveloped wannabe Caucasians

Still searching for civilization

If you buy the media’s interpretation

Of who we are

But am I taking this too far?  

Because to me,

The real problem be the WB, ABC, & NBC

Which are the real WMD:

Weapons of Mind Destruction 

Because too many people

Including many Africans

See what they see

Through the smart bombs they call TV

And it’s not just the newscasts,

It starts at age 3 

Because I grew up

Watching images of Bugs Bunny

Dressed in grass skirts and black face

Speaking in “African dialects”

And every 10 years,

There’s a new version of Tarzan on the TV set 

And I don’t know about y’all,

But I recall seeing gorillas pass for Africans

In those “Tin-Tin” cartoons

And if you remove

Marvin Martians’ helmet from Looney Tunes

He’s probably an African illegal alien

Or a fallen, faithless, famine-stricken African child

With his stomach protruded 

And it’s these convoluted characterizations

That have helped in creating grown-up policy makers

Who partially base their opinions of our homeland

From films such as “Congo”,

“Gorillas in the Midst” and “The Air up There”

And we can’t forget “Tears of the Sun”

Which left too many tears on the sons and daughters of Africa,

Searching for a beautiful representation

Of our native land 

But that won’t happen until we Africans

Take responsibility for our portrayal

Because the betrayal of our friends

From FOX, CBS, and CNN

Means we will never see-an-end

To caricatures of the continent of human creation

Which has been made to look

Like she’s on her deathbed

And ready for cremation 

But we will show the world

That our Mother Africa is strong, vibrant and defiant

Because the pulse of nearly a billion people can never die

When WE control what the world sees,

So we must never comply

To pictures painted by pessimists on TV of our homeland

For we are the pulse of Africa

And we will now show the world

How proudly we will stand!

A case for Jay-Z, hip-hop’s finest MC

 I have reposted this article with links at this link on my website: http://omekongo.com/omekongo/blogs/310-case-jay-z-hip-hops-finest-mc-repost-wlinks

The future of youth: 3 reasons why today’s youth give me hope

Over the past few days, I traveled to Georgetown University and Ohio University for several performances and workshops relating to the arts and social change. At Georgetown, I performed my poetry related to the greatness and potential of the African continent at their annual Africa Night. From their I traveled to Ohio to conduct a seminar on how to engage the African continent, followed by a performance dealing with alternative forms to media in the misinformation age. Being a youth motivational speaker, I became more and more inspired with each event and left these colleges with these three revelations that give me hope for the future.

1.             Our youth DO care about what’s happening in t he world today.  If you turn on the television today, you are not likely to see many positive stories showcasing young people. There are either stories about gun violence and flash mob store robberies, or stories about poor job markets and the bleak future college graduates face. In the face of all of this, so many of our youth persevere. The students I met were so optimistic about the future and dedicated to creating change and challenging stereotypes about them. 

2.             Our youth are committed to service. I’ve seen first hand that more of our youth than not are committed to service. The students at Georgetown and the University of Ohio are committed to raising awareness about conflicts and genocides taking place in countries like Congo, South Sudan, and Burma. They were either raising awareness with their projects or actually raising money to support people affected by these causes.

3.             Our youth are really paying us no attention.  They just do what they do. All of the negative stories about youth in the news seem to primarily be watched by other adults. Many youth I encounter just don’t care or don’t know what’s being said about them. They are too busy trying to survive or help others survive that our words and opinions about them often go with no response from them.

          At the end of the day, we need to spend more time celebrating the great work our youth are doing. In doing so, we would not be so pessimistic and we would be more willing to engage them. In too many instances we’re often scared of them. To be scared of them is to be scared for the future and that is no way for us to live. The more we engage and celebrate our youth, the brighter our future will be. So what are you waiting for?

A case for Jay-Z, hip-hop’s finest MC (repost w/links)

Let's begin with a disclaimer: I used to hate Jay-Z, but now I consider him the greatest lyricist of all time. I believe so strongly that Jay-Z is the best lyricist ever that my doctoral dissertation is an intellectual biography of the Jiggaman (AKA Jay-Z). Let me first explain how I came full circle on Jay-Z and then make a counter-argument toEliott C. McLaughlin’s argument for Nas as the greatest lyricist ever.

I was born in 1976—the decade when hip-hop began to emerge. Hip-hop has thus been the soundtrack of my life. As a hip-hop lover and rhyme-writer myself, I always respected Jay-Z’s lyrical skills, but his content was just not appealing to me. As a teenager growing up during the onset of Jay-Z’s career, I was more of a fan of music that I found to be politically conscious or spoke to black power. Groups such as Public Enemy and Dead Prez, who made songs like “Fight the Power” and “They Schools” (a song about schools not teaching black history to students) really resonated with my upbringing. This includes much of Nas’ music. Jay-Z on the other hand, was just another gangster, misogynistic rapper with a very skilled rhyme style or “flow.” While I was familiar with some of the more popular tracks from Jay-Z’s first six CDs, his seventh and eighth CDs really led me to begin changing my opinion of him and deem his work as one truly worthy of study.

Jay-Z released his “Black Album” (his eighth album) in 2003. I was a newly married 27-year-old and found myself frustrated with much of hip-hop that was regurgitating the same misogynistic music that celebrated guns and violence from my teenage years. Many of the so-called “conscious rappers” like Public Enemy were not heard on the radio anymore and I was not buying much music then. I was referred to the “Black Album” album from a friend. The topics on this album from growing up, starting businesses, and developing black power really spoke to where I was at that age. There were other songs featuring violence and misogyny, but I paid more attention to the songs that fit my needs. Jay-Z was no longer drug dealing at this time either so more of his songs were more reflective of these experiences as opposed to celebrating them, which I thought he was doing before.

After listening to the “Black Album” in great detail, I went back and listened to Jay-Z’s other albums again and found more politically conscious messages going back to his first album—references that I missed before. For example, in his song “Can’t knock the hustle” from his first album “Reasonable Doubt,” he stated:

At my arraignment screamin’

All us black folks got is sports and entertainment, until we even.

 

This showed me that, from the beginning, Jay-Z wanted to use music to build black wealth. Unlike me, he had no problem exploiting the stereotypes of what blacks had to do in order to have success in the entertainment industry so that he could gain enough money to help his community. As he said on his eighth album in the McLaughlin-cited song “Moment of clarity”:

I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them

So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win.

 

I then realized that Jay-Z and I were on a similar path—a path to help uplift not only the black community, but people suffering anywhere. I now believe that the story of Jay-Z must be told in order to avoid the same prejudging of hip-hop and its artists that have plagued the music since its inception and this one of the many reasons that I disagree with McLaughlin’s assessment. Let us review further.

            First off, McLaughlin states the title of best lyricist has little to do with album sales but cites the artists with the most successful commercial albums for his comparisons to Nas (Tupac, Biggie, Eminem, Too Short, LL Cool J, and OutKast). He states that rappers such as Rakim and Big Daddy Kane do not count because “their catalogs get thinner the deeper you move into the '90s.” How Too Short ends up in an article of great lyricists and KRS-One and Lil’ Wayne do not is a story for another day. Oh yes, and Outkast is a group and does not belong here, but I digress.

            Secondly, McLaughlin’s other main argument of Nas being a greater lyricist than Jay-Z is because Jay-Z knows how to make great commercial hits while Nas delivers quality content throughout an entire album. In truth, Jay-Z’s lyrical content is his most underrated quality because more attention is paid to his commercial success than his lyrics and I am guilty of that too. Let us examine. 

            As a lyricist myself, I am a fan of clever rhymes. I love double triple, and even quadruple entendres, which is when writers give multiple meanings in the same line. No one does this better than Jay-Z. For example, on a song from his “American Gangster” album, he says:

I’m a K-I-double-L-E-R

See y’all in hell

Shoot [n-word] straight through the E-R.

 

At first glance, one would think that Jay-Z is simply saying: “I’m a killer and I don’t care. I’ll even come and shoot you in the emergency room” and yes, he is saying this. At the same time however, this entire song is about the fact that people only respect him and call him (as he says in the song’s introduction) “the greatest writer of the twentieth century” when he writes about sex, drugs, and violence, but whenever he writes something “thought-provokin’,” people say he has lost his edge. To that end, when he says “shoot [n-word] straight through the E-R,” this is also be a double entendre referring to the usage of the n-word with the “a” at the end versus the “er”; the former being seen by some in the black community as a term of endearment while the latter being seen by many blacks as a derogatory term used by white racists. The debate still rages on in this new millennium as to whether this term should still be used by black people. This is what Jay-Z means in his book Decoded when he refers to rap being “symbolic and literal…nakedly obvious and subliminally effective at the same time.”

            This is where Jay-Z does not get enough credit. Yes Nas has made many powerful statements and commentary on issues facing the black community such as in his song “Black girl lost”, but he has also made his fair share of derogatory comments against women such as his song “Oochie Wally,” which led Jay-Z to ask

Is it “Oochie wally wally” or is it “One Mic”?

Is it “Black girl lost” or “Shorty owe you for ice?’”

 

While McLaughlin points out that listeners can easily hear references to Huey P. Newton and Ivan Van Sertima on a Nas album, listeners can also hear references to Fred Hampton and Malcolm X on a Jay-Z album. In fact, during his “Watch the Throne” tour, Jay-Z and Kanye did a song called “Made in America” dedicated to Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King and more. The audience seemed to not expect this at a Jay-Z concert, with one concertgoer I overheard saying sadly “I wish he would have performed ‘Ether,’” his classic Nas dis track.

            Lastly, McLaughlin states that Jay-Z wrote the lines “If skills sold, truth be told/I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli” because he knew his skills were not as lyrically adept as other rappers. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In analyzing other parts of the same verse that McLaughlin cites, Jay-Z says:

I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars

They criticized me for it, yet they all yell "holla"

Since I know what I'm up against

We as rappers must decide what's most important

And I can't help the poor if I'm one of them

So I got rich and gave back, to me that's the win/win

Growing up in a poverty-stricken, drug-ridden, and fatherless community led Jay-Z to make a conscious decision to exploit the music industry for everything it is worth so that he could make money and give back. This is why he raises millions of dollars through his scholarship fund. This is why he and Kanye smash up a Maybach in his video “Otis” and then sell the car in order to raise money for a charity helping those in the Horn of Africa. This is why he helped create water wells with the United Nations in certain impoverished communities in countries like Angola. This is why he helped raise money for Columbine and this is why he did a tribute concert for 911 victim’s families and donated 100% of the proceeds to that cause. Lastly, this is why he and Beyoncé raised more money than many other fundraisers in helping to elect and re-elect the first African-American President.

            It is too easy to dismiss Jay-Z as a great lyricist because of his commercial success. He should not be condemned for being a good “business, man.” It is clear that Nas is one of the greatest MCs ever. I, like Nas, am not a fan of lists. Given, however, that we are obsessed with “number ones” in this world, lists will continue to appear. While there are several reasons why some may believe Jay-Z should not be on anyone’s list, my hope is that you will see by my case above why he deserves consideration—even greater consideration than Nas. The defense rests.

Omekongo Dibinga is a rapper, motivational speaker, and CNN award-winning iReporter. He has released 7 albums and 5 books and is the founding director of UPstander International. For more information, please visit www.upstanderinternational.com.

 

The future of youth: 3 things I learned from youth in Mali

 

            Last week, my organization UPstander International partnered with the State Department to provide leadership training for youth workers in Mali, West Africa. This country has been labeled as being “in crisis” due to its battle with northern Islamic extremists. During the evenings, I trained more than 30 leaders of organizations that work with youth. During the day, I would travel to middle schools, high schools, and universities and deliver my inspirational message “G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness!” If you didn’t know, Mali is a French speaking country so all of my presentations had to be in French. Pas de problème (no problem)! I relearned 3 main things from this Mali experience:

 

  1. Youth around the globe want inspiration. The enthusiasm with which these youth and youth leaders received my message was truly moving. I was reminded that, no matter what language you are speaking with youth, they will listen to you if they believe you are genuine in your professed care for them. In order to connect with youth you must understand your real motivations in wanting to work with them.

 

  1. Malian (like most African youth I encounter) place a serious value on education. Many Africans with whom I come across on the continent see education as the primary way to obtain success. In the United States, many students believe the same thing but mainstream media is so ubiquitous that too many youth here succumb to the false notion that their chances of success are greater by obtaining YouTube stardom, getting a record deal or landing on a reality show.

 

  1. Whether in America or abroad, youth respond to music that is uplifting. One of the travesties of our global entertainment culture is the manner in which our youth mainly see and hear music that degrades women, and celebrates drug abuse and violence. Many of us have been convinced that this is all the type of music our youth want to hear. In all of the 19 countries I have visited and performed in, I have found student after student who said they did not believe it was even possible to make music with an uplifting message. The entertainment industry is wrong in thinking uplifting music won’t sell. Our low opinion on what youth value perpetuates a continued arrogance and ignorance towards youth and we must change that.

 

While I was originally nervous about speaking to an audience of French speakers, I quickly forgot my nervousness as they continually nodded their heads in agreement with my 4 strategies for achieving greatness: giving, releasing (friends and letting hurt go), overcoming fear, and having a winning mentality. Even though these were performances blended in with motivational messages, students were studiously taking notes and posing very thought-provoking questions.

I have returned to States more committed to the idea that youth across the globe are in need of motivation whether they are in an economically developing country or the most powerful nation in the world. We have our differences, but at the end of the day, we all laugh and cry in the same language. I am going to continue to travel and speak the universal language of hope for a better day into our youth. Every day, if you think about it, you can also impact a young person. Just take time and communicate to them in the same way you needed to be talked to by an adult when you were younger and you will quickly see that you have an attentive audience. So what are you waiting for?

The future of youth: 3 things I learned from youth in Mali

 

            Last week, my organization UPstander International partnered with the State Department to provide leadership training for youth workers in Mali, West Africa. This country has been labeled as being “in crisis” due to its battle with northern Islamic extremists. During the evenings, I trained more than 30 leaders of organizations that work with youth. During the day, I would travel to middle schools, high schools, and universities and deliver my inspirational message “G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness!” If you didn’t know, Mali is a French speaking country so all of my presentations had to be in French. Pas de problème (no problem)! I relearned 3 main things from this Mali experience:

 

  1. Youth around the globe want inspiration. The enthusiasm with which these youth and youth leaders received my message was truly moving. I was reminded that, no matter what language you are speaking with youth, they will listen to you if they believe you are genuine in your professed care for them. In order to connect with youth you must understand your real motivations in wanting to work with them.

 

  1. Malian (like most African youth I encounter) place a serious value on education. Many Africans with whom I come across on the continent see education as the primary way to obtain success. In the United States, many students believe the same thing but mainstream media is so ubiquitous that too many youth here succumb to the false notion that their chances of success are greater by obtaining YouTube stardom, getting a record deal or landing on a reality show.

 

  1. Whether in America or abroad, youth respond to music that is uplifting. One of the travesties of our global entertainment culture is the manner in which our youth mainly see and hear music that degrades women, and celebrates drug abuse and violence. Many of us have been convinced that this is all the type of music our youth want to hear. In all of the 19 countries I have visited and performed in, I have found student after student who said they did not believe it was even possible to make music with an uplifting message. The entertainment industry is wrong in thinking uplifting music won’t sell. Our low opinion on what youth value perpetuates a continued arrogance and ignorance towards youth and we must change that.

 

While I was originally nervous about speaking to an audience of French speakers, I quickly forgot my nervousness as they continually nodded their heads in agreement with my 4 strategies for achieving greatness: giving, releasing (friends and letting hurt go), overcoming fear, and having a winning mentality. Even though these were performances blended in with motivational messages, students were studiously taking notes and posing very thought-provoking questions.

I have returned to States more committed to the idea that youth across the globe are in need of motivation whether they are in an economically developing country or the most powerful nation in the world. We have our differences, but at the end of the day, we all laugh and cry in the same language. I am going to continue to travel and speak the universal language of hope for a better day into our youth. Every day, if you think about it, you can also impact a young person. Just take time and communicate to them in the same way you needed to be talked to by an adult when you were younger and you will quickly see that you have an attentive audience. So what are you waiting for?

Dark Girls (a poem)

 

Dark girls, the center of the world

Wish you knew how precious you are, a black pearl

Insults they hurl, your heart in whirl

Hatin’ on your hair straightened or curled

Hatin’ on your skin while they wear tannin lotion

Hard to see you pretty face on television

Your own people hatin’ cause they don’t understand

You get more appreciation in foreign lands

My eyes pourin’ man, want you to overstand

You perfect as you are sister don’t give a damn

About the people who think that your lips too big

Rock that natural you don’t need no wig

Your hips birthed nations yet you face discrimination

People dissin’ you just don’t have the motivation

To get their lives together so they’re pickin’ on you

Don’t let ignorance distract you from doin’ you

 

See they don’t put you on TV cause they scared of your features

Lovely chocolate-coated body, no need to bleach ya

Skin you’ll never win changing your complexion

Your darkness is a gift, a true reflection

Of the original woman who gave birth to us all

The world starts and ends with you so you need to stand tall

Dark woman in the White House, see your time is now

Shinin’ brighter than a lighthouse, when I see you I bow

To your greatness hope you take this as a gesture of love

Forget the jesters out there clownin’ you because

Hurt people hurt people, they don’t love themselves

Even your parents couldn’t see the beauty that they held

But it’s all good sister, we’ll make this right

The only person I know who shines in day AND night

So let me be your knight just protectin’ my queen

Dark girl, the brightest thing that the world has ever seen

I don’t care about the Zimmerman verdict

 

            I don’t care about the Zimmerman verdict. Don’t get me wrong. I care about Trayvon’s family and the tragic loss they have endured. I care about the way in which some in our society dragged the name and life of a teenager whose life had yet to begin through the mud. I care about the way we in America are such cowards on having a genuine conversation about race but quick to tear each other down when any incident with racial overtones occurs in America. I care about how we use social media to only have conversations with those who agree with us and boost our egos. Other than that, I don’t care about the Zimmerman verdict. What I care about is the fact that too often in Black America, we demonstrate that we don’t care for our own lives and then get upset when others do the same.

            Throughout this trial, I’ve found myself frustrated that we are not as vigilant at ending black on black violence as we are when we are attacked by other races. Don’t get me wrong. I know there many organizations, religious institutions, and community centers that work tirelessly to end violence in our community. I am a member of several of them. The problem is that we don’t come out en masse to demand change and show that we love and value one another. Do we? Not since the Million Man March have I seen national public declarations of black love. I find myself wondering how many black people killed each other today in Chicago and their stories will not even make the news? It is safe to say that America thinks we hate each other too. Do we?

            When I wake up tomorrow and turn on the TV or the radio, I am going to see and hear the same misogynistic music and images perpetrated by black people. People can talk about the record labels all they want, but WE write the lyrics. WE star in the videos. WE celebrate murder, buffoonery, rape, child abuse, lewd sex, drug abuse, and more. Furthermore, we never hold members of our own community accountable for their words or actions. In reality, we’re quick to give out ghetto passes for anyone who demonstrates a certain level of ignorance or hood attributes like calling Bill Clinton the first black President because he grew up poor and had a single mother.

            So in the same way I didn’t celebrate when OJ Simpson was acquitted (the first time), I’m not going to lose any sleep over George Zimmerman. Whether he was acquitted or not, I know that I could still be the next Trayvon, Danroy, or Amadou tomorrow. I know that should I be so unlucky, some in this country will tear into my past and find some way to argue that I deserved to die for driving my own car, walking in my own neighborhood, or reaching for my wallet. As far as I can see, there will be more Zimmerman trials. I am just going to continue to do my best to help build on creating a bigger black culture of self-respect so that the next time this happens, others will see more of our humanity and develop some real empathy. I believe wholeheartedly that if we show the world how much we value our own lives as Black Americans, others will think twice about shooting us down like animals. Time to get back to work.

I am LIVING, not marching for Trayvon Martin

 

             I have a great deal of respect for everyone across the country who is marching to demand justice for Trayvon Martin. Like many, I do believe that Zimmerman should have been found guilty of something. Deep in my heart, however, I knew that a “Not guilty” verdict was going to most likely be the decision. For days, I spent time thinking about my own mortality. I was reminded once again that, should something as tragic as this befall me, half the country will be in support of getting “justice” for me and half the country will seek to paint me as a criminal based on my past writings, emails, films, and songs. After a few days, however, I decided that I am not going to worry about this. I have decided that the best way to honor Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Emmett Till, Danroy Henry, Amadou Diallo, Jordan Davis, and countless others is to live and live to the best of my ability and be an example for others.

            At the end of the day, marching is not going to do much to challenge our justice system. Those who do not want to watch will just change the channel or stay in their air-conditioned homes on a hot summer day. How do I know this? I know this by the fact that there are no rallies for George Zimmerman taking place across the country. Those who support the verdict and even proclaim Zimmerman to be a hero will focus on legislative efforts to make sure that Stand Your Grand laws stay on the books. They will focus on midterm elections and the 2016 elections to make sure they are putting the politicians in place who will support them. At the end of the day, the rallies will end and America will go back to business as usual, but there is a way that this time can be different.

            Rather than march for Trayvon, let’s live for him. What does that mean? It means increasing our efforts to save our youth across the country who are victims and perpetrators of violence. As someone who has been a community activist all of my life, I know that there are Americans of all races and faiths working in inner city neighborhoods to halt the violence that persists in our communities. Unfortunately, our efforts will never make it to the mainstream media because mass black-on-black crime is expected. With all due respect, we have to step it up. We have to do more to show our youth that we care about them but will we?

            While many who will march for Trayvon are people dedicated to their families and communities, I know for a fact that there are some protesters who will go home and beat their own children like they don’t know them just for looking at them the wrong way. Some protesters will go home and call their own children the most vile names imaginable. Many more will go home and let their children continue to listen to music and watch movies that degrade people who look just like them. This is not living for Trayvon.

            If we want to live for Trayvon, we have to increase our efforts in showing the world, starting with our own community, that we care for our youth. In addition to boycotts, we need to organize BUYcotts to buy and fund artists, music and movies that showcase us in a more positive spotlight. Juror B37 was able to refer to Zimmerman as “George” and Trayvon and Rachel Jeantel as “they” because she has only been informed about black people by the images that have placed before her by mass media. If you did not live in a black community, what would your view of the black community be based on watching TV?

            Living for Trayvon means demanding more of us. While not perfect, I see the Jewish, Latino, and Asian communities demanding respect in this nation by building their own institutions and participating more in the political and business process of America. Many of us in the black community are still letting our votes be taken for granted by democrats, pimping ourselves out on YouTube for record deals and “exposure”, and showing by the way we let our young black boys walk outside of their homes half naked that we don’t care about them. I reiterate: living for Trayvon means demanding more from us. It means rappers realizing that their lyrics celebrating violence may be entertainment for some, but it’s the only form of education on black people for others. If we demand more from us, the country will be forced to change its impression of who we are.

And please notice that I am saying “We” and not “You” because I am as much a part of the problem as anyone else. Whenever I see young brothers and sisters repping themselves incorrectly on the streets or in the schools where I speak as a youth speaker, I am guilty as charged. My pledge to Trayvon and so many others we have lost is to do my best to not let them down. I will continue to promote peace in my lyrics, and be a role model wherever I go. I’ll work to smile more at the young brothers I see in the streets. When I slip up in this mission (as we all do at some point), hopefully my community will not let me fall but rather help pick me back up. Justice for Trayvon starts with me, not fighting to have the justice system pick the verdict I would I have preferred. Let’s join together and build ourselves up after the rallies on the shoulders of all who have died unjustly. That’s the least we can do.

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.