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Is Harry Belafonte Right About Beyonce?

Beyonce_sings_Listen.jpg

Beyonce sings 'Listen.'

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons/Mr Azed

In addition to his smooth voice and good looks, Harry Belafonte is notable for publicly adopting controversial political stances. In an interview, the singer criticized Beyonce Knowles for her lack of social responsibility. He said:

I think that one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen and now you're talking. I really think he is black.

Knowles' camp responded with an impressive laundry list of her charitable endeavors, including the Survivor Foundation, her organization that raises money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. While Beyoncé has certainly dedicated herself to enriching the lives of others, in a lot of ways, Belafonte is right: Charity isn’t the same as activism–charity doesn’t come with the same kinds of risks.

Today’s black performers certainly enjoy more money, clout, and visibility than ever have in the past. So why aren’t more of them speaking out about social issues that impact the black community?

Historically, black celebrities are no stranger to controversial political causes, but they risk a great deal more when they do put their neck out to take a stand. During the Vietnam War, then-world-renowned boxer Muhammad Ali publicly applied for conscientious objector status. Ali was stripped of his boxing title after the resulting legal battle, and convicted of draft evasion. Ali garnered both accolades and public scorn for taking a stance for what he believed in, demonstrating that publicly taking sides on controversial issues can be a dicey move for a celebrity's public persona and their career.

Belafonte might be right to point the ways that black celebrities have failed to embrace social and political issues, but he’s wrong to single out individual entertainers for going along with the status quo. Rather, his criticism should be pointed at the entertainment industry that values staying marketable over staying true to one’s beliefs. As long as performers are expected to shut up and sing, we can’t blame them when they do.

Bridget Todd is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetMarie.

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