When Muhammad Ali was laid to rest, luminaries honored his convictions as much as his achievements. As a young man, the champ was arrested and stripped of his titles for holding true to his beliefs, yet he refused to back down. Today, as atrocities continue to accrue — Orlando, Flint, Sandra Bland, etc. — it holds true that the masses look to entertainers for cues in troubling times. Some answer the call. Some choose to remain silent.
After a mass shooting Sunday (June 12) at a gay club in Orlando, Kid Cudi tweeted, "The Hip Hop community is the least outspoken about gay rights and Ima go out my way to change that." And Gizzle, a queer rapper featured in Diddy's latest video “You Could Be My Lover,” sent this statement to REVOLT:
"Being that we are citizens of such an advanced nation, this should be a wake up call to us all. However, we cannot allow incidents like this to change the fabric of our souls. We must continue to practice and promote love and peace amongst all races and religions, despite origin or sexual orientation. ... Our strength will come from our ability to unify and support one another. We have to use this not only as a moment of mourning and reflection; but as a chance for education and tuning into what's really going on in the world."
Shortly after the August 2014 death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, rapper J. Cole joined protests in Ferguson, Missouri and was so moved that he released the track "Be Free."
Contrast that with the reaction of Young Thug, who said, “Leave that with the critics and the laws and all that other shit. We havin’ fun, we iced out, we havin’ money, that’s how we doin’ it.”
Whether they verbalize it or not, many artists understand Young Thug's line of reasoning. In 2014, Nicki Minaj spoke to Rolling Stone about the backlash Kanye West faced when he notoriously announced, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" during a live televised fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina victims. "People say, 'Why aren't black celebrities speaking out more?'" she said. "But look what happened to Kanye when he spoke out. People told him to apologize to Bush!"
Minaj went on to say that from that point on, West had been silent about social justice issues. "He was the unofficial spokesman for hip-hop, and he got torn apart," she said. "And now you haven't heard him speaking about these last couple things, and it's sad. Because how many times can you be made to feel horrible for caring about your people before you say, 'Fuck it, it's not worth it, let me live my life because I'm rich, and why should I give a fuck?'"
On Tuesday (June 14), Beyoncé was praised for the announcement that she had donated over $82,000 for the victims of the Flint water crisis. But it bears noting that her recent activism comes many albums sold — and millions of dollars earned — into her career. Ali wound up spending four years away from the sport he loved in the prime of his career. Though some reports suggested Beyoncé and husband Jay Z had been quietly bailing out Black Lives Matters protesters who had been imprisoned, her public actions are always in a calculated, controlled manner. Never an impassioned tweet, for instance. And certainly not in the manner of Ali, who famously objected to the Vietnam War by saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with thosee Vietcong."
Radio airplay generates revenue that's split multiple ways. Album sales defer to streaming. It's been reported to death, but it's true: Monetizing a music career is much harder than it used to be, and today's artists are literally on the paper chase, via the tour circuit. Endorsement deals bridge the gap, and brands want to align themselves with a specific image — not a lightning rod. "Speaking out" can pose a material threat; perhaps the precarious financial state is an easy scapegoat for artists who decline to use their platforms for social justice.
But for every artist who might decide it's safer to tweet about Flat Tummy Tea than injustice, there will always be artists like Kendrick Lamar, who use the biggest stage they find themselves on to remind the world they have "a bone to pick," and let their art prove their heart.