Both of my sons, who like to talk about my "prehistoric" taste in music, have tried long and hard to sell me on contemporary artists. They both count Kanye West as one of their favorites, and I’ve been guardedly pleased with his work myself. As I write this column, however, brother West has just become one of my favorite contemporary artists. That’s not just because of his creativity, but because of what he said on NBC television on September 2, 2005.
You see, NBC staged one of the first televised relief efforts for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina on September 2, with an impressive array of American music’s notables pitching in. It was a carefully scripted event, as such things tend to be - accentuating the "positives" and ignoring the "negatives" of the catastrophic situation. Brother West, however, went off-script and kept it real. Rather than just reading what was prepared for him from the electronic teleprompter, he spoke from his heart of how the media had portrayed all "looters" in New Orleans as African-Americans, spoke of how the government seemed to be ignoring some of those in need along lines of race and class, and managed to say on network television that "George Bush doesn’t care about black people" before the network cut away from him, tried to save face and later issued a statement disavowing his comments.
I found brother West’s comments to be a frank and refreshing departure from what we usually get from "notable" black folks today. I grew up in the days of the civil rights movement, when personalities ranging from Hank Aaron to Harry Belafonte took to the streets and marched for freedom, and when politicians like Adam Clayton Powell and Shirley Chisholm and clergy like a very young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put their careers, livelihood, popularity and lives on the line to speak truth to power. They clearly understood that the blessings of popularity and power came with the responsibility to speak up for those who were victimized by racial prejudice.
When one "fast forwards" to the present time, however, that kind of commitment is often lacking. When asked why he was not more politically active, one retired professional athlete (who shall mercifully remain nameless here, but who sells a lot of shoes with his name on them) said, "Conservative Republicans buy sneakers too." When one examines the work of many of today’s African-American elected officials and "leaders," one can find a lot of rhetoric and a lot of "safe" community outreach activities, but very little in the way or words or deeds to possibly put them at odds with the "powers that be" that they consider to be their patrons and supporters from beyond the African-American community. Too many of our "leaders" today hesitate to use their positions to make a difference, and simply do what’s safe and acceptable. Too many of our "leaders" today make a great show of their ethnic identity, while being careful not to go too far, lest they run afoul of those from whom they crave "acceptability."
I appreciated what brother West said and did, because he literally "put his money where his mouth is" to have his say. A quick check of the internet shows that he already ticked some folks off, and may be headed for the same "popularity pit" that The Dixie Chicks were cast into when they dared to say that our going to war in Iraq was a bad idea. I hope that he has no regrets, because he did what authentic African-Americans in positions of influence should still do - say what needs to be said, without worrying about who does or does not like it.
His words were also a welcome reminder that the ongoing battle for civil and human rights is not just a battle for "old folks." In an era when too many young, successful African-Americans get caught up in self interest and "conspicuous consumption" and when too many older influential African-Americans hold onto positions of influence and tell young people to "wait their turn," Brother West reminded us by his words that many of the heroes of the modern civil rights movement were young people willing to take a stand.
I plan to go out and buy one of Kanye West’s CD’s tomorrow, and I hope that those who read this will do the same. His music may not be what I’d call "old school," but his heart, intent and courage definitely qualify. I also hope that other African-American entertainers, elected officials and clergy will learn from him and follow his lead. There’s no shame in losing a few bucks or a bit of "majority favor" for saying what needs to be said. The real shame is in holding your peace and "playing the game" out of concern for personal well being when you ought to know better.
Rev. Joseph A. Darby is Senior Pastor of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He and his wife Mary, have two sons. Rev. Darby is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. A fourth generation minister in the AME Church, Rev. Darby pastor's the largest congregation in the Seventh Episcopal District of the AME Church.
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