While hundreds of black celebrities have happily doused themselves in freezing water for the Ice Bucket Challenge, news outlets like Hip Hop DX, Ebony and Buzzfeed, as well as social media users, have accused prominent African-Americans of being too quiet about the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two weeks ago.
“I think there is definitely a lack of articulation in public forums,” Mark Anthony Neal, a professor in African and African-American studies at Duke University in North Carolina, told International Business Times.“The weird irony behind getting black celebrities to weigh in on Ferguson is that every five minutes you see another one of them doing an Ice Bucket Challenge.”
Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Oprah – who all spoke out after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 – have not spoken publicly about the shooting since the 18-year-old Brown was killed by a white police officer in the small city outside of St. Louis. Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith and Kanye West also are amongst the big names that have yet to turn to social media to voice their outrage over the shooting that has launched nightly protests and national debate over police brutality, gun violence and racial profiling. But is that enough to justify claims that black celebrities on the whole have been too quiet? And is it fair for us to expect that every well-known black American will weigh in on Brown’s shooting simply because of his race?
Neal suspects many black stars are discussing the matter among themselves or making private financial contributions to causes that support Michael Brown’s family. And there are dozens of others who have voiced their feelings on the shooting.
Lauryn Hill, T.I., G-Unit, B.o.B and J. Cole each wrote instant songs reacting to the shooting in Ferguson and the subsequent violent protests. Rapper Dee-1 and Sean “Diddy” Combs posted video messages. Russell Simmons penned an open letter on racial problems in America. Wiz Khalifa and Young Jeezy called for a moment of silence at a performance in Pittsburgh during their Under the Influence Tour. Nelly led a “Hands up, don't shoot” chant at a charity event in Los Angeles which included Chris Brown, Wale, Omarion, Bow Wow, Trey Songz and Lil Mama.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, Snoop Dogg, Spike Lee and Wesley Snipes attended Michael Brown’s funeral in St. Louis on Monday. John Legend, Talib Kweli, Juicy J, Erykah Badu, Common and Keke Palmer, among others have taken to Twitter on the issue. Rapper Killer Mike shared a photo of Brown’s grieving family on Instagram with the caption, “These two people are parents. They are humans that produced a child and loved that child and that child was slaughtered like Game and left face down as public spectacle while his blood drained down the street.”
— DEBO MARKS (@DEBOMARKS) August 25, 2014
— Jean (@JMessWitIt) August 25, 2014
Disappointed that powerful black celebrities like Beyoncé and Jay Z haven't used their platform to discuss what's going on in Ferguson
— ♢Sarahhhhh♢ (@SPFRaines) August 25, 2014
Black celebrities have the choice to speak out about Ferguson. Never forget they were very vocal when Obama was running. #StayWoke
— #BlackAugust (@iamyaokhari) August 25, 2014
I've seen more black celebrities tweet/gram about the ice bucket challenge than I've seen them protest for equality and peace in #Ferguson
— Jenissseellaa (@Goldil0cks) August 20, 2014
Lil Wayne, for one, has frequently been called out. The rapper, who has been called one of Michael Brown’s favorite artists, has kept mum since the shooting. Yet he has been vocal about other political issues in the past -- most notably, in a 2005 song he recorded with Mos Def in reaction to the Bush administration’s lagging response to help Hurricane Katrina victims.
“I think they’re in a really difficult situation. They are always going to be held up the standard that was set by the generations of black celebrities that existed during the civil rights movement,” Neal said, pointing to figures like Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Mahalia Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., Nina Simone, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who used their art to advance the cause.
“In the 1960s black celebrities were the only avenue of representation for black communities,” Neal said. “Black celebrities now aren’t just managing careers but transnational brands.” Every action they take must be aligned with the package they have marketed themselves to be. “It’s almost like they don’t have the freedom to be particularly outspoken,” Neal said.
Brown’s killing in some ways echoed that of Martin, who was shot dead by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida, in February 2012. In the wake of Martin’s shooting many black celebrities took to Twitter, endorsed petitions and participated in rallies. Others reserved their reactions until after killer George Zimmerman’s acquittal.
In this case, celebrities may be doing something similar.
“I think people are waiting for reports, forensics, before assuming one position or another,” said Neal Lester, an African-American literary and cultural studies professor at Arizona State University. “We’re at moment where we’re still traumatized by this,” he said.
But Lester believes we shouldn’t put too much importance on a celebrity chorus surrounding the Michael Brown shooting at all.
“I don’t want to measure how vocal people are by those big names, because I don’t think those names are any more or any less important than the people protesting,” Lester told International Business Times. He believes celebrity voices may be important symbolically, but negligible in actual impact.
“I don’t think people are moved to action because Beyoncé said something. People are more moved whether she is getting a divorce,” Lester said. “At end of the day what preoccupies people’s minds is what’s happening on TMZ, not what’s happening on CNN.”