Because the hip-hop superstar has decided to take up social commentary as a hobby, the price of two movie tickets and snacks is an investment I'm willing to make. DuVernay's film skillfully exposes the personal sacrifices, strategy scuffles and psychic damage Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his lieutenants endured while planning the famous 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for black voting rights. I'd love for Jay Z to see the movie because he recently told Oprah Winfrey that "hip-hop has done more for racial relations than most cultural icons."
He went on to explain his belief that, "before, people partied in separate clubs. There were hip-hop clubs and there were techno clubs. Now people party together, and once you have people partying, dancing and singing along to the same music, then conversations naturally happen after that, and within conversations, we all realize we're more alike than we're separate."
First of all, it is ahistorical to suggest that hip-hop is the first black cultural movement that has been followed, enjoyed and appropriated by white people. If subsets of the races sharing a connection to a certain genre of music could be said to equal meaningful social progress, America would not have had mass lynchings during the Jazz Age or little girls murdered in Alabama churches during the Motown era.
This is not to say that music can't have a healing and uniting influence, but the idea that music is more responsible for racial reconciliation than the work of both famous and nameless men and women who dedicated their lives to social change is insane.
Furthermore, though people of all races may enjoy hip-hop, Jay Z is clearly overestimating the artform's ability to engender racial understanding. For example, in the late 1980s, plenty of white kids were bopping their heads and opening their wallets to songs by rap artists like NWA that pointedly criticized police brutality. But all one has to do is read the comments section of any newspaper story about the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner to see where many of the white kids who jammed to those songs back in the day stand on the issue of racially based police brutality today.
Jay Z has a nasty habit of disrespecting his civil rights elders. A few years ago, he called legendary 87-year-old entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte (whose donation of a chartered plane filled with some of the era's top entertainers to the Selma cause is spotlighted in DuVernay's film) a "boy" in retaliation for Belafonte's charge that Jay Z lacks "social responsibility."
I understand that bravado and hyperbole are the language of hip-hop and perceived disses cannot go unanswered. Jay Z may be conditioned to claim the throne even when he clearly doesn't deserve it, but he needs to understand that just because he may go yachting with Hollywood's elite or look out into an audience full of rich white kids at his show, that doesn't mean that hip-hop has bridged the racial gap for ordinary Americans in any meaningful way.
In fact, it could be argued that whatever positive impact hip-hop has had on racial reconciliation has been blunted by the genre's negative traits. For every white hip-hop fan who gains real insight into the black experience from listening, there are probably five who walk away thinking they have tacit permission to use the N-word.
I'm not a hip-hop hater. I grew up listening to progressive artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One. I have friends of all races who enjoyed and enjoy the artform. I'm not knocking the genre's potential to be an agent of social change. But please be clear that if black Americans have 99 legitimate, persistent and systemic social problems, Jay Z and most hip-hop artists haven't solved one.
23 Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
24 But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
13 And I will cause the noise of thy songs to cease; and the sound of thy harps shall be no more heard.