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Jay Z and Barneys: The Role of African American Entertainers in the Black Freedom Struggle

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"No Vietcong ever called me n*gger." When Muhammad Ali spoke those words in 1966, he was at the height of his boxing career. Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam cost him the heavyweight championship and could have sent him to prison. However, Ali could not remain silent as young black men were being drafted to slaughter another people of color in Southeast Asia. Two years later at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, John Carlos and Tommie Smith made the decision to protest racism in the U.S. by donning black gloves and raising their fists as the National Anthem played throughout the Olympic stadium. For this action, Carlos and Smith were expelled from the Olympics and faced numerous threats when they returned to the United States.

Since the early 20th century, leaders within the black community have debated the role of African American entertainers in the fight for racial equality. For some, black athletes, artists, actors, and musicians do not have a moral obligation to fight racism. However, for those like W.E.B. Du Bois, all art was propaganda and should further the cause of racial justice. While we have witnessed over the years many who adhered to Du Bois' advice and risked their fame, fortune, and at times, lives for the sake of civil rights, their have also been many others who refused to take a stand against racism for fear of losing money or status.

There is clearly a financial risk for black entertainers in taking up the banner of civil rights. Indeed, one only needs to look at Nasir "Nas" Jones to see what can happen when an artist becomes socially conscious. Once Nas shifted from releasing songs such as "Oochie Wally" to those like "Sly Fox," he was marginalized and rarely heard on mainstream radio. This should not come as a surprise considering the amount of white corporate ownership of record labels and media outlets. Nas' career clearly shows how much African Americans continue to struggle to be successful if they speak out against racism. However, does the chance of losing financial gain and endorsement deals excuse black artists from staying silent in the midst of racial injustice?

If you have watched any late night talk show or cable news channel in the last few years, there is good chance you have heard Bill Cosby blaming the black poor for their lot in life. However, as Michael Eric Dyson points out, Cosby avoided racial issues when he was known for Fat Albert and had endorsement deals with Coca-Cola and Jell-O. In short, it is easy to speak about race when it is politically convenient and you do not have as much to lose. Perhaps no other black entertainer has learned this lesson better than Michael Jordan. As has been reported numerous times, in 1990 Jordan refused to endorse African American Harvey Gantt in the North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms because "Republicans buy shoes too." Now, with his playing career over, Jordan is comfortable entering the political fray, hosting million dollar fundraisers for President Obama.

The issue of whether African American entertainers should be active in the black freedom struggle is again at the forefront with Jay Z and Barneys. The hip-hop mogul is poised to begin his partnership with Barneys, which has been accused twice for racial profiling its customers. With the deal, Barneys will sell items inspired by Jay Z and he will assist in creating a holiday window display with some of his proceeds going to charity. In response to the alleged racial profiling, thousands of individuals have signed a petition urging Jay Z to drop Barneys.

Perhaps Jay Z could learn a lesson from his friend, Kanye West. While West is no Chuck D in terms of political activism, he is also no Michael Jordan. A week after West was on the cover of Time magazine as the smartest man in popular music, he appeared on national television and declared, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." West knew he could lose endorsement deals for the statement, but could not stay silent as nearly 2,000, mostly poor African Americans, drowned on national television while the Bush administration did next to nothing.

So the question becomes: Will Jay Z follow in the path of Paul Robeson, The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, and others who used their gifts and fame to fight racism while paving the way for his success? Or will Jay Z remain silent and make millions off of a corporation who, it appears, practices racial profiling? Jay Z deserves his success, but with that success comes an obligation. Jay Z is one of the few individuals who has the influence and power to send a clear message to corporate America that racial equality, not the dollar is the real Holy Grail. As a Jay Z fan and a civil rights activist, I truly hope he does the right thing.

Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University's Nuclear Studies Institute. His forthcoming book on Stanford University Press, Links in the Same Chain: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Global African American Struggle for Freedom, examines the role of black antinuclear activists.