Bridging the gap between famous people and everyday people has been this century’s defining celebrity movement. Without it, social media wouldn’t have been able to thrive more than any other post-millennial invention.
The attempt to humanize and ground hallowed stars has been evident in everything from Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 hit “Jenny from the Block” to magazines and websites that regularly document all the ways in which they’re just like us. Among the evidence: They fall down in public, and some actually buy their own groceries.
It’s a particularly prevalent trend in music, where, more than any other entertainment genre, celebrities cultivate personal connections to fans. “We’re rich and famous, but we’re no different from you,” they seem to be telling us as they post Instagram pics from their daily lives to back it up.
But if I was too blinded by the bling to buy it when Jenny from the Block sang, “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got,” I’ll never think of black superstars like Beyoncé and Jay-Z or Kanye West as ordinary folks.
As an ordinary black man, West reminds me just how little most modern music stars have in common with us mere mortals each time he releases a new “I am genius, hear me roar” statement, which he’s done once again with his seven-track June 1 release “Ye.”
Despite the dissonance between celebrity lives and civilian lives, young black fans still see musical heroes like West as role models, icons to be idolized and emulated. A Reuters poll found that during the week of Kanye’s Twitter endorsement of Donald Trump, the U.S President’s approval rating among black men doubled. That’s the power of music’s top dogs. Some have more clout than Oprah and the Obamas combined.
Have we entrusted them with too much of it? Do we really want our future leaders to learn humility and political theory from Kanye West, a man who recently said African-Americans chose to be slaves for centuries? Do we want image and cash obsession dominating the aspirations and awareness of young black Americans — especially in these throwback times when we all might be better served by the examples of a Rosa Parks or a Medgar Evers?
Unlike music’s black ’70s visionaries like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and Bob Marley, who were “woke” decades before it became a word, West and many of his contemporaries of color promote materialism and their own awesomeness as hard as they do consciousness. Some may represent the sounds of blackness, but they often seem to be too far removed from the everyday African-American experience to really get it.
Less than three years ago, rapper-turned-Oscar-nominated actor Will Smith was singing this tune: “And I have to say, I live with constant prejudice, but racism is actually rare — someone who thinks their race is superior.” He made those remarks at the end of 2015, just a few months before his wife Jada Pinkett Smith banged 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite drum, spurred, in part, by his failure to be nominated for his performance in “Concussion.”
Months before Mr. Smith’s race revelation, Nicki Minaj had griped about how racism kept her “Anaconda” video, a lyrical and visual celebration of black female shapeliness, off of MTV’s shortlist for Video of the Year. She made some excellent points, but would MTV have done anything to improve the daily lives of average black women in America by adding to Minaj’s accolades?
This is not to imply that stars of color don’t experience the same racism that the rest of us do. But with bling, bodyguards, and beauty squads buffering them from everyday black reality, some only talk about racism when they’re passed over for an MTV Video Music Award or an Album of the Year Grammy.
Every so often we read front-page news about how Hermes employees in Paris treated Oprah Winfrey like a common customer (twice!), or about how a security guard at the exclusive Henry County, Georgia, gated community where T.I. lives refused entry to the rapper and had him arrested for losing his patience. We cry, “Racism!” — and we’re probably right. But most young black kids will never know what it’s like to shop at Hermes in Paris or live in an exclusive gated community or be married to a multi-millionaire Kardashian.
The aspirational aspect of celebrity is important, but thankfully, there’s more to some black music stars. Mary J. Blige epitomizes not just black female dignity but human dignity as well, and both Janelle Monae and Frank Ocean are doing admirable work as LGBTQ advocates. Others are spreading important messages, too (Hello, Pulitzer Prize winner, Kendrick Lamar!), but we need a more balanced diet of black heroes and heroines.
In our sometimes slavish devotion to black stars with beats, we forget the beaten-down that came before them. They’re the ones who lived through times harsher than anything the average black person today may ever experience. They’re the (often-forgotten) pioneers of African-American music: the Marian Andersons, the Josephine Bakers, the Mahalia Jacksons, the Billie Holidays, the Sammy Davis Jr.’s, and the Nina Simones.
They’re the ones who had to sit at the back of the bus, brave death threats, and use separate restrooms from the white people they entertained. They’re the ones who had to overcome far greater challenges than chart and Grammy competition.
Nothing can diminish the legacies of our black forefathers and foremothers. But among most young African-Americans, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and James Baldwin are a lot less influential than Kanye West, who actually thinks Michael Jordan and not Tubman deserves to be on the twenty-dollar bill. If they knew more about Douglass, Tubman, and Baldwin, they probably wouldn’t be so quick to follow West to Trump’s corner.
“I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!” West raps on the “Ye” track “Yikes.” Sorry, Kanye. “Black Panther,” which has done so much more for black pride in 2018, already has that beat covered. We’re good.