Jay Z purchased Tidal early in 2015. Since that time, he’s worked tirelessly to promote the company. Jay Z has also gone out of his way to point out the backlash to black ownership he’s experienced in the process. At his 2015 B-Sides Concert, he went so far as to call out his competitors and the inherent white privilege they receive, in contrast to himself. Jay Z’s cause is a worthy and absolutely necessary one: ownership matters above all things. The problem is that Jay Z started his career as a drug dealer and just one felony charge would have aborted his colossal success. His fame could have, all along, been used to challenge mass incarceration and America’s blatantly racist drug policies but his newfound activism only surfaced when he stood to benefit personally. This is precisely the problem with the Oscars controversy.
Jada Pinkett Smith sent out a call to boycott the Oscars and for blacks to invest in their own programming. Like Jay Z, Smith was highlighting a simple truth and that is again about ownership and investing in self. Smith was absolutely correct in raising our consciousness to a higher level and to fight the greater battles of ownership and organizing resources for black advancement. The shot Smith fired, after a very public snubbing of her husband for an Oscars nomination, has somehow morphed into a righteous crusade to acknowledge black actors and create more opportunities for them in Hollywood. Oscars host Chris Rock echoed those sentiments when he said, “We want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it…Not just once. Leo (DiCaprio) gets a great part every year.”
While these are certainly worthy goals, just as in Jay Z’s case, the activism seems to only be awakened by and directed toward self interest and perhaps, tangentially, the interests of the masses of disadvantaged people. Historically, black entertainers fought for the oppressed masses. Today the oppressed masses are expected to fight for the entertainers. It is seen when Jay Z appeals to fans to subscribe to Tidal in an effort to help him and other artists fight the machine (full disclosure: I am a Tidal subscriber and I appreciate that the company has donated to black advocacy organizations). It is on display when Jada Pinkett Smith asks less established actors to boycott the Oscars with no guarantee that the entertainment company she and her husband own will actually give them work.
Dick Gregory was a successful comedian during the 1960’s. Gregory’s breakthrough in comedy came in 1961 when a one night performance at the Chicago Playboy Club turned into six weeks and ultimately earned him an appearance on “The Jack Paar Show.” Having just begun to establish himself on then national scene, the obvious thing to do would have been to play it safe, grow his following and earn as much money as he could for several years. Instead, by 1963 Gregory found himself jailed in Birmingham for fighting oppression, although he actually lived in Chicago. Gregory placed the plight of the masses above his personal battles. Yes, he still performed and fought to have his art appreciated. He did also, however, use his platform unapologetically to fight the larger battle of black liberation, although he stood to gain very little personally in return. That is selfless, genuine advocacy on behalf of the oppressed.
Yes, Jay Z and Jada Pinkett Smith are 100% right when they direct our focus to the larger issues of ownership and organizing resources. They should be commended for this and we should follow their lead. However, they must mature as activists and see the urgency in issues that do not directly impact them but do in fact persecute the masses. Jay Z would be the perfect spokesman to fight mass incarceration. Rather than giving large gifts to the Church of Scientology or funding an exclusive school, perhaps the Smiths could find more meaningful ways to benefit the black communities they have so vocally expressed concern for. Yes, the Oscars are very white but black entertainers have the power to work for much more than a little statue.