Over at NPR’s Code Switch blog, Gene Demby offers his own analysis about Jay Z’s public skirmish with Harry Belafonte and ends with this:
Black celebrityhood operates much differently now — and it’s different in large part because of the efforts of Belafonte and so many of his contemporaries. Jay Z and so many of us who grew up listening to his music inherited a world dramatically different than Belafonte. Whatever world the next generation inherits will have its own distinct guidelines and understanding of what social responsibility looks like.
Belafonte is criticizing Jay Z and Jay Z isn’t bowing in deference —after, all that’s not how hip-hop has ever worked. (Belafonte has since said he’d like to meet in person with Jay Z to squash their beef.) Whatever you think about the merits of their arguments, they are operating from two deeply disparate cultural contexts. Belafonte was at the peak of his fame in a world where he fought just so people could exercise the right to vote. Now, we live in a world where Jay Z gets quoted by the first black president. Just 20 years ago, that last scenario would have felt like jokey speculative fiction.
What struck me in Jay Z’s now infamous interview with Elliot Wilson was that while much of the world (ie. Bruce Ratner, Samsung) sees him as a symbol of all that’s young and black and hip in America, Jay himself seems a lot more closely aligned with struggles of the uber wealthy sliver of the country’s elite. It’s why he’s thrown himself into his new venture as a sports agent: he wants to protect the interests of wealthy people like himself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But it’s not activism or social responsibility. It’s self-interest.