One of my favorite Dave Chappelle bits, and trust me, there are many, is his Ja Rule joke, wherein he hysterically describes how our celebrity worship can make us do absurd things sometimes:
With tragedies and injustices seemingly happening everyday, I’m often reminded of this joke. The 24-hour news cycle and our addiction to social media give us increasing access to what are favorite celebrities are doing and saying. Or, in times like this, what some of them are not doing and saying. A particularly notable instance of this is, of course, Jay Z finally addressing Harry Belafonte’s comments about his–and his wife’s–lack of social responsibility.
“Yeah I’m offended by that because first of all…this is going to sound arrogant…but my presence is charity, just because of who I am. Just like Obama’s [Barack] is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything the hope that he provides for a nation and outside of America is enough. You know what I’m saying? Just being who he is. You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything, he should be left alone. No I’m not going to say anything bad about him. Of course we want to challenge him to do better but Belafonte went about [it] the wrong way. The way he did it within the media and then he bigged-up Bruce Springsteen. It was like woo, you just sent the wrong message like all around…You just bigged-up the white guy against me in the white media. I’m not saying that in a racial way. I’m saying what it is the fact of what it was.”
Now, once that quote got plucked from Jay’s interview with Eliot Wilson, it got dissected. And the response has largely been about whether Belafonte was right, whether Jay’s comments were improperly decontextualized, and what, if at all Jay should or should not be doing. Having listened to my fill of Jay Z’s responses to critics, I expected something as ridiculous glib and problematic as this “Hey, the fact that I am black and famous is inspiration enough, so don’t say shit to me” quote he supplied. It follows Jay’s habit of skirting criticism by dismissing critics, telling you how awesome he is, and lightweight barely making sense. In his defense, though, it’s kind of doesn’t make sense to expect a kind of social activism from a dude who seems to be following a model that argues that one cannot be socially responsible and so rich that his net worth is theoretical at the same damn time. Jay is about making money, and unless you can come up with some nice Trayvon shirts for him to sell, well, he ain’t really going to be that down for the cause. And although I completely respect Belafonte’s claim that Jay should be doing more, I think a certain audience’s expectation that a dude who says that he’s a business…man be more socially responsible is a setup for failure. That is, unless that social responsibility comes with a profit.
And so, I think from here on out, we might want to adopt the Ja Rule of Thumb. What I mean by that is, I think we need to both stop relying on celebrities for solace and direction and quit having the expectation that those who understand themselves as a business and/or brand would somehow deviate from that lane should the crises of the day seem to call for it. In fact, the more I hear from famous people, the less I want to hear from famous people. That’s not to say that Belafonte or anyone else should stop putting pressure on the likes of high profile artists, but perhaps we should run a background check before we call on them to act outside of movies. We might want to ask ourselves which high profile faces we really want to speak out against injustice, especially if said celebrity is predicated upon the social inequality that leaves one man rich and another man dead. Because when we aren’t careful and don’t consider all the implications of celebrity activism, we end up with Ja Rule on the line waiting for his answer on where we go from here.