Beef with Jay-Z: The Belafonte Edition

jay-z-rolling-stones-magazine-coverI’m not going to lie. I love a good hip-hop beef. Like all top-shelf pop entertainment, it’s always really stupid — yet somehow thoroughly entertaining.  As part of the price for success, Jay-Z seems to be involved in more of these than most. There are numerous flavors of said beef. Sometimes it’s just a transparently lame attempt to revive one’s career, a la MC Hammer vs. Jay-Z.  Incidentally, I know MC Hammer only wants to be referred to as Hammer now but I give that about as much credence as the obituary for the hyphen from Jay Z’s name. But I digress. Whether it’s heartfelt animus like the Jay-Z vs. Nas dust-up several years ago, or a supposed bad-ass gangsta getting his fee-fees hurt like The Game vs. Jay-Z, you can bet these things will devolve into churlish displays at a fairly quick pace.  I swear hip-hop artists are the most sensitive little children on the face of the earth. Like the song says “Sensitive thugs, y’all all need hugs.”  But this latest beef is actually kind of interesting, and therefore worth talking about: Jay-Z vs. Harry Belafonte.

Right off the bat let me say that this might be the worst hip-hop beef ever — not only because Harry Belafonte is a well-known artist entirely outside of the hip-hop genre, but also because Mr. Belafonte may have started with a real point.  Let’s pick up this story from the original interview from the Hollywood Reporter:

THR: Back to the occasion of the award for your acting career. Are you happy with the image of members of minorities in Hollywood today?

Belafonte: Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking. We are not determinated. We are not driven by some technology that says you can kill Afghans, the Iraqis or the Spanish. It is all — excuse my French — shit. It is sad. And 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 Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.

No one can deny Mr. Belafonte’s accomplishments as an actor, singer and perhaps most importantly, an activist. But he is way off the rails here. Personally, it makes me slightly uncomfortable to tell people, celebrities or otherwise, what they should be doing with their time, money, or fame.  To me, anything you get from celebrities outside of entertainment value is a bonus — that’s what we pay them for, and most times, that’s all we get.  But If you want to talk about modern celebrities not having enough of a social conscience, there a few people alive today better equipped to make that point than Harry Belafonte.  Then again social conscience is an amorphous term. Maybe what Mr. Belafonte considers to be socially worthwhile might not be the same as what Mr. Carter thinks. And that would have been an interesting discussion.  What does it mean to have a social conscience?  If an assortment of charity work including scholarships and benefit concerts isn’t enough ( I believe that’s what Mr. Belafonte originally meant), then what is?  And why is that?

But since this is a hip-hop beef, larger discussions and nuanced questions are frowned upon. It simply must be stupid on some level. So immediately after making a very fair point (the image and public portrayal of minorities in Hollywood staying maddeningly stereotypical and narratively subpar), Mr. Belafonte goes into the most non-helpful place imaginable. Not only does he call out both Jay-Z and Beyoncé in the press, but he also manages somehow to take away their racial identities. The entire last bit of the interview seems about three bridges too far.

Mr. Belafonte, just a thought: Rather than calling folks out in the press and then weirdly ascribing black identity onto another performer who shares your views on social responsibility, how about using your celebrity to set up meetings with some of these top performers and explain why it’s important for them to be involved?  Hell, John Mayer got to play with Hova at the 9/11 benefit concert for the widows and children of first responders because he tweeted that the guitar riff on D.O.A was hot. I feel like someone with your history, star power and frankly gravitas, can get that meeting set up with a phone call or two. Failing that, here’s another way to go about it in the press:

I think we need more from the celebrities of today. I won’t say they’ve turned their backs on social responsibility but giving money to causes isn’t enough in my book. I see stars like Jay-Z giving his time and money to things like scholarships funds and benefit concerts and that is important.  But to me social responsibility means more than that.  It means standing up to injustice. It means fighting against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Today’s stars don’t seem as comfortable as the stars of my generation in speaking out on those sorts of issues. I don’t know why that is but we, that is society, need them to be involved.

Notice how in my version I didn’t insult the man, his wife nor remove his racial identity. Seems like talking to him privately or going with the above offering would have been better for everyone involved. Luckily that seems to be where the story is going.  Here’s Mr. Belafonte from MSNBC:

“…I would hope that Jay Z would not take personally what was said because it was not said about him personally. Having said that, I would like to say to Jay Z, to Beyoncé: My heart is wide open and filled with nothing but hope and the promise that we can sit and have a one-on-one. And lets understand each other rather than try to answer these questions and these nuances in a public place.”

Yeah, why would Jay-Z take those personal attacks so….personally?  Weird right? And why have this conversation in public even though that’s exactly where you started it. Despite not being in the hip-hop game, Mr. Belafonte seems to have the whole abrogation of personal responsibility thing down.  This too is an important part of the drama that is hip-hop beef. However,  this attitude really drives me crazy. I don’t know why people can’t ever admit that they were ever even slightly in the wrong. Nor why everyone seems to bending over backwards to make what Mr. Belafonte did seem OK. But it wasn’t. I know it’s Harry Belafonte, civil rights icon and national treasure but he too can be wrong. There’s a whole subgenre of this larger discussion on celebrity culture weirdness about the power, and the rarity of credible public apologies. But that’s another story.

As is, this is just another hip-hop beef winding its boring way through the press and on to inevitable, ineffectual oblivion. Which just goes to show: if you’re actually serious about making your point, beef is never the answer.

Categories: Random Rant

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