Shiny S. Patel
General Sections Editor
A few days prior, I went into New York City because I came across the opportunity to see Usher host a talk with Harry Belafonte, a member of the Civil Rights Movement, about social injustice. Yes, you read that correctly. I did not go to see Usher perform any of his hit songs, but instead I went to hear him speak about social injustice; even Jay Z sat in the audience amongst the crowd.
Soledad O’Brien was there, too; she was able to ask questions to contribute to the talk, some of which came from the audience, to both Usher and Harry Belafonte about different aspects of social injustice, with a strong focus on the Black Lives Matter movement in America.
O’Brien got the ball rolling: she asked how Usher and Belafonte felt about the time we are living in right now.
“There is a lot going on that we should feel rewarded by, but that should not mean we ignore the revolutions that need to happen,” said Usher.
Belafonte gave credit where credit was due and shone light upon the fact that there are many celebrities like Usher and Jay Z who are using their platform in fighting against this injustice.
Usher was asked what raised his consciousness about the issue to which he responded that this conversation is coming at a time where all artists can and should use their platform to benefit the cause. He does not consider himself an activist, but instead an “actualist” who looks at reality as how it is.
That said, he asked himself, “What can I do to make a difference for my children?”
The discussion further opened up with the viewing of Usher’s new song and video of “Chains”, which was dedicated to the lives that were lost due to racial discrimination within the system, including both the education system and the ongoing police brutality against members of the black community. The music video played the images of those killed due to police brutality and gave a brief summary of their stories. Some people who were given recognition were Trayvon Martin, Andrew Joseph, Rekia Boyd, and Caesar Cruz.
Before the screen went black, a quote played on the screen: “Facing the facts is the first step towards change.”
After the video, Usher said that he had asked his friend Jay Z for help.
“The reality of what I hoped for in reaching to Jay was to make a change,” he said.
He strives to look in the eye of the victim, see the pain, feel the strife of the struggle and in turn, try to open the conversation. More people are being added to the equation of deaths, when does it stop?
Harry Belafonte tied together the arts with social injustice by stating that “art exists to inform.”
“Art form is used to express our history and our degradation,” said Belafonte.
He gave the examples of films and books like “12 Years a Slave” to show how art can help strike up the conversation. He talked about how slaves could not read, write, congregate in large masses, or speak any languages aside from their master’s. Artists give another perspective that history books may not be able to give. It is difficult to portray the grief and the struggle through a textbook when the facts hide the cultural aspects that came with the inequality.
Usher believes that all of us are a definition of the legacy we will leave behind. By using every opportunity possible to talk about the inequality, we can help eradicate this issue. He drew in the minorities of the audience by reiterating that you do not have to be black to be a part of this process and help in the transition away from a society of injustice.
Belafonte then went on to discuss how the Civil Rights Movement had thousands of leaders, and not just Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is crucial to know because it shows that it takes the effort of many, not just one strong, well-spoken individual to start a movement and carry out its purposes. So many people need to take on the responsibility to take the charge. Comparing the Civil Rights Movement with Occupy Wall Street, Belafonte were properly able to show that even today, movements can be peaceful and effective. Usher reminded the audience that it is okay for young people to be engaged in a movement and for people get upset about injustice.
O’Brien asked: “Is it easier for media to report news when violence is involved?”
Harry Belafonte showed his distaste for the media’s portrayal of news stories by saying how media is the one who creates the oppression in an already oppressive society. He, however, talked about how it is important to see how there are aspects of the system that can anoint you with values and you cannot be indoctrinated with what you are nearly forced to see. He shared a story about Eleanor Roosevelt and how she spoke out for those without a voice, like the Japanese Americans during World War II and the black men in the poor parts of Chicago.
Following this, O’Brien asked what they wanted the audience to walk away with after the discussion. Belafonte again brought up how young people need to be the ones who make the change happen.
One question Belafaonte wanted the audience to ask themselves was: “What role have you played in resisting the discomfort of truth?”
An unfortunate reality that was brought up was how people do not want to be disturbed in their lives by the protests against injustices. People need to start realizing that pausing their lives to see the ugly truth of the deaths of young, innocent children may be necessary to prevent further destruction.
And how can the tactics of the Civil Rights Movements be passed on to this generation?
Belafonte identified that America professes to be a very moral nation when, in fact, it is rooted in vast immorality. A part of making a change is by going out to vote. He brought up the sad statistic that roughly 10 million black people who were eligible to vote in the last election, did not vote. There are grassroots ways to help and yet the same people who want structural change are not taking advantage of the opportunity in front of them. Belafonte reminded the audience that there is a price to pay for activism and though many people will want you to change, you have to stick by the right choice.
O’Brien asked how the youth could be encouraged to be activist without being violent and this was where Usher eased his way back into the discussion.
“Peaceful and clarity makes a difference,” said Usher.
By utilizing the education that is provided by globalization and technology, there are many ways to move away from violence. Information is readily available and by using that, people can see what worked and what did not work. Belafonte respectfully gave a counter point by saying that anger is fuel to the cause, however.
Anger with violence is destructive; anger with courage is liberating.
O’Brien talked about how people could get involved in the movement, to which Belafonte seemed a bit shocked. He brought up how there are so many ways for people to find out about organizations with the technology in the world and the easiest way to get involved is to simply do it; do not get scared by the organization. As an example, Usher mentioned sankofa.org.
The next interesting question was how society could move past the “hashtag” movements and instead be productive about voicing the change needed. Belafonte responded by saying that communities are clearly ready to make the change but they do not have the resources or the money available to do so. Essentially, by seeing what communities are participating in the hashtag movements, those with the resources could pump it into those areas and provide a backbone for the support they need. Belafonte blatantly said that the black leaders need to use their foothold in society in order to help the less fortunate members of the black community.
Usher seemed to have more optimism in the discussion by saying that though everyone supports for the cause, not everyone stands when they need to. He said that the fact that we showed up to the discussion in the first place shows that there are people out there who genuinely care.
The next segway within the conversation put into question President Obama’s role within the movement against social injustice. Belafonte almost seemed to say that our president was not using his identity as the first black president to help the black agenda get a voice in the government.
He said that using his education and his multiracial background, he could have done more.
Belafonte believes that President Obama did not touch the core needs of the agenda. By using the unfinished phrase “Yes We Can” as his motto, he allowed people to finish the sentence with whatever they saw fit. What will American people choose to lead the next step?
After touching on a few more questions regarding police brutality and the role of the youth, Usher ended the discussion by talking about how music can be used as a movement of peace. He reminded the audience of his role as a performer in the world by elaborating on his passion for music. He alluded to how music should be used to speak with the reality of what is going on.
Use your choice of platform to help the chains of social injustice be broken.
“What are we choosing to speak about?”