On the Importance of Black Celebrities Speaking Up about Race

by Shonette Reed

It seems that this year—more than recent years—America’s Black celebrities have worked hard to use their influence and fame to shed light on one of our country’s oldest and most insidious issues: race. 2014 has been marred by the numerous cases of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against Black people—the most prominent being the police-caused deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and now Tamir Rice. Due to this, many celebrities and influential figures from the entertainment industry—including actors, musicians, and athletes—have realized the importance of speaking up.

The cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner ended with no indictments for the police officers who killed them, causing protests in cities across the country. In addition, there were many songs released by prominent black artists, and many celebrities expressed their opinions about the controversial cases on multiple media platforms.

This, in turn, has caused even more of a stir, with people also expressing how they feel about celebrity voices being more prominent than those within the communities. Some believe that celebrities should “stay in their lane,” (as John Legend was told to do) and not respond to political matters. There have also been criticisms and questions about why celebrities have added their voices to the cause: Is it fair that their voices hold more influence than the community activists and leaders on the ground? Are they really committed to justice, or are they making a “fad” out of their own activism?

People have also found themselves bothered by the celebrities that have not spoken up. For instance, rapper Azealia Banks called out rapper Iggy Azalea for appropriating black culture, but not speaking up on the issues that matter and affect Black people. Though this caught the attention of many media outlets and caused a Twitter feud, Banks had a valid point about the way mainstream society values Black culture when it produces a profit, but doesn’t actually value Black lives.

Though there are those whose names have not shown up in the media as frequently, there are still many famous faces who have spoken up about racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic oppression. For example, actor and comedian Chris Rock, New Orleans Saints’ tight end Benjamin Watson, and so many more have taken time to share their perspectives on the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Musicians Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill are just two big name music artists who have found themselves dedicating songs in the wake of Ferguson.

Furthermore, Rapper B.o.B shared that he “never felt like the legal system was just,” in a recent interview with the Global Grind. Hearing news that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown left the rapper disappointed, causing the release of his new mixtape, “New Black.” Rapper J. Cole traveled to Ferguson and met with protesters, releasing his song “Be Free” shortly after his visit. In a recent interview with Vulture, Chris Rock said that if he had the chance, he would interview the white people of Ferguson, as so much of the issues that America is experiencing with race are problems created and perpetuated by white people. Erykah Badu tweeted words of support to Ferguson protesters, encouraging the people to keep going “until [they] change [the police authorities’] minds.” Pop star and style icon Rihanna also shared a very important post on her Instagram account, featuring a protester holding up a sign.

A photo posted by badgalriri (@badgalriri) on

What we must remember is that change is a collective effort. While it is important for local community members and leaders to be protesting and pushing for progress, we have to understand the power and influence that comes from having celebrities speak up on these issues. Especially, celebrities who can articulate what so many of us are feeling, like Ava Duvernay, Kerry Washington, and Jesse Williams have done. (They give us hope among the Don Lemon’s and Charles Barkley’s.) Having them speak up in newspapers and magazines, at awards shows, events, and TV appearances—it brings national attention to an issue that many feel is a “black problem.” While this seems disheartening and unfair, it is true.

When someone with influence sheds a light on injustice, it ignites a fire. It causes people to pay attention and take action within their own communities. And in a way, the media expects Black celebrities to address these topics based on the color of their skin. (Notice how many Black entertainers and famous personalities have been asked to speak on race issues, compared to white or non-Black people of color.)

America has a race problem. And the problematic nature of how we see and deal with race in this country has too long been neglected. Thus, those of us who are most affected—and negatively affected at that—by race on a daily basis have had to figure out solutions. We need the voices of celebrities and public figures to do so. While there are some who have remained silent on these issues because of their own ignorance, silence ultimately helps no one.

We are grateful that some of our most prominent celebrities understand this. We are grateful that they have chosen to speak up.

Photo credit: Ray Tamarra/GC Images

Shonette Reed is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. Her interests include fashion, reading, travelling, music and art. Follow her on Twitter: @ShonetteReed.

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