We Are Our Heroes: On Activism In The Age Of Celebrity Worship

A couple of months ago — with the shadow of Eric Garner’s murderers being acquitted looming overhead and the impassioned pleas that Black lives matter still echoing off the walls of Ferguson businesses — the Brooklyn Nets hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers for a nationally televised home game and decided to make a statement. The biggest stars on each team donned those infamous comic sans “I Can’t Breathe” shirts while the world was watching on ESPN and the Royal couple sat in the front row.

The gesture, which can easily be dismissed as just grandstanding, is a pivotal moment as it speaks to a resurgence in athlete activism, even if it’s a more neutered form than when Muhammad Ali was rallying against a war on the Việt Cộng. The game was a victory for the Black Lives Matter movement and one that shouldn’t be understated.

Unfortunately, though, one of the biggest stories on Twitter was why Jay Z wasn’t pictured wearing a shirt. The conversation was so dominant that Dream Hampton had to facilitate an article essentially defending Jay and laying out a slightly convoluted explanation about how the shirts wouldn’t have been possible without the rapper’s hustle. The article served to say that yes, Jay Z cared. And he’s part of the movement.

This has been the story of Jay Z ever since he transcended Hip-Hop to become a cultural icon and mainstream businessman. We’ve felt the need to parse out activism and importance in relation to Black progress that may or may not actually exist. Jay has insisted that his “presence is charity” and him just being Black, rich and rapping makes him important just for the doors he’s opened. Others, like Harry Belafonte, see him as a typical capitalist, only concerned with what’s convenient to his bottom line. There are supporters on each side, debating about Jay’s role in Black activism. Just a couple of weeks ago, one popular tweeter insisted that Obama wouldn’t have been elected if not for Jay Z’s influence somehow.

But the real question here is why do we even care?

Ever since Mike Brown was murdered, I’ve seen people ask for the Kanyes and the LeBrons to speak out. And while their voices are welcome, the movement doesn’t live and die by their involvement. That’s why they’re called “movements.” They’re moving. And not moving only means you get left behind. For every Kanye West or Jay Z we’re begging to speak up in some profound way, there’s a Killer Mike or Jesse Williams whose comments are as impassioned, necessary and important as anyone else’s. I’d much rather embrace Killer Mike or Tef Poe’s messages than a celebrity who may only be speaking because he or she feels obligated by the fans to do so.

While we clamored for LeBron to say something or wanted NBA players to stand up for Garner over All-Star weekend in New York, we didn’t praise the St. Louis Rams nearly enough for coming out of their tunnels with #HandsUpDontShoot gestures. None of those Rams players were stars, but their actions revealed a deeply racist community of businesses in St. Louis appalled by their cries for equality. The move was powerful, important and didn’t need an all-star to pull off.

Activism is as mainstream as its ever been in my lifetime and we as an audience have the ability to build up our activists instead of waiting for a Beyonce “For Mike Brown” single to go live on iTunes. Case in point: J. Cole. Cole released an album with little notice and received praise leading up to its release solely on the strength of how much his fans respect him. And a large part of that respect comes from his willingness to go to Ferguson without any press. Or to march for Eric Garner. Or to perform a song about police brutality on Letterman even though it wasn’t a song from his album that he was supposed to be promoting. These moves have earned him a fan base that supports him enough to get him 350,000 albums sold in his first week. By contrast, an artist like Nicki Minaj did a fraction of those numbers despite her massive PR push and being everywhere for a solid three months.

Hopefully the J. Cole example is a sign that we’re ready to have celebrities who are famous for being beloved instead of being beloved because they are famous. This is an integral distinction to have because I truly believe that it’s impossible to have an effective movement in an era of celebrity worship.

It’s only natural for us to wonder what our favorite celebrities think about things. It makes us feel closer to them to know what they feel about whatever hot topic issue is in the news. I get it. But their opinions don’t hold any more value than any of ours. So if Kendrick Lamar thinks respectability politics are the way to approach violence in America, it should be regarded as his opinion and not a referendum on how the rest of us should approach his ideas. I don’t feel any particular need to engage in his ideas more than I would any other person on Twitter or at the mall. A celebrity’s words shouldn’t hold higher standing than anyone else’s. Because a “regular person’s” thoughts are just as valuable and hold the same potential as anyone else to spark a revolution. Movement is about the action, not the person doing the action.

I’ve heard the same argument growing up: who’s going to be the next Malcolm or Martin? Who’s going to be the one, true voice to lead us to the metaphorical Promise Land? Even Oprah criticized the Ferguson protests because there didn’t seem to be one centralized figure a la Dr. King to single-handedly “lead” the protests. It’s time to move past the idea of a singly-led movement because it’s an archaic concept. Just look at Deray.

Deray Mckesson and I met during the Exeter Academy summer session thing they do for high school kids. Deray was on his way to Bowdoin College and I was on my way to my senior year of high school. Since then, we kept in touch as social media buddies — we never really spoke but followed each other on Facebook, Twitter and all of those other ways we get to know what the other person is up to without picking up the phone or hanging out with them in person. But I always followed what he was doing because I always liked Deray and thought he had something valuable to say whenever he did send out a message. Still, I didn’t think much of it when he sent a tweet that he felt compelled to go to St. Louis after Mike Brown’s death and try to make a difference. He had less than a thousand followers on Twitter.

Now, Deray is one of the most vocal and important voices in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. What started as a trip to Ferguson to be see the city firsthand became an exercise in reporting, mobilizing and organizing. He, along with other enterprising activists have started newsletters, set up boycotts and helped keep the Mike Brown, Eric Garner and countless others visible to the American consciousness. He’s been interviewed by The Atlantic, met Farrakhan and had meetings with the founder of Twitter. He’s amassed more than 60,000 Twitter followers since August.. Just think about that number. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke in front of 60,000 people only a handful of times. It took massive efforts and months of planning to get that many people in one place to hear one man speak. For Deray, he speaks to 60,000 people while on his lunch break.

And what’s so beautiful about the current movement is the fact there are so many Derays. Hundreds of people who can mobilize and speak to thousands in their own ways. This means that Deray can mobilize thousands in Ferguson while someone else mobilizes thousands in New York and someone totally unrelated moves in Los Angeles. These people don’t need to agree with one another or even know that the other people exist. All that’s important is that they’re all working towards a goal of redefining the value of a Black life in America. Added bonus: the more difficult it is to pinpoint one centralized leader, the harder it’ll be to point a gun at one person and expect the movement to crumble.

The struggle for understanding in America is centuries old and proving the worth of a Black life takes all the help it can get. So for that, any celebrity who wants to lend any assistance is welcome. If Beyonce and Pharrell want to take a few beats to put their hands up at the Grammys, good for them. If Jay Z wants to funnel money to the movement in secret, it’s definitely welcome. And if Charles Barkley wants to deride the people trying to affect change, then that’s his prerogative. But we are long past the time when we need any celebrity for a movement’s survival. In fact, it’s probably the celebrity who needs the movement. Because it’s a lonely, sad place to be when everyone has moved and you’re left standing still.

David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and editor based out of Atlanta (but it’s still WHO DAT all day). He’s currently an editor at Moguldom Media whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, CNN Money, The Source, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the Internet. He’s a New Orleans Press Club award recipient and has been cited in Best Music Writing. He’s also a proud alum of Davidson College.

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