Jay-Z And Harry Belafonte's Intergenerational Feud

Jul 31, 2013
Originally published on July 31, 2013 1:54 pm

Perhaps you’ve been following the feud — if you can call it that — between civil rights icon Harry Belafonte and megastar Jay-Z.

Last year, Bellafonte was asked if he was happy with the image of minorities in Hollywood. Not at all, Belafonte said, and then went on to call out high-profile artists and celebrities who he said “have turned their backs on social responsibility.”

Belafonte went on to name Jay-Z and his wife, Beyonce, as prime examples.

Jay-Z responded, “I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope.”

What does Jay-Z and Harry Belafonte’s feud say about the generational divide between African-Americans?


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HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) In our town, no scarlet ribbons.


"Scarlet Ribbons," one of Harry Belafonte's many hits. Lovely, isn't it? So why is he fighting with Jay-Z?


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Fool me twice, that's my bad. I can't even blame her for that. Enough to make me want to murder. Momma, please, just get my bail. I know nobody to blame. Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself.

YOUNG: It may be a classic case of generations clashing. Last year, Belafonte was asked if he was happy with the image of minorities in Hollywood. He said no, and then went on to call out high-profile celebrities for turning their backs on social responsibility, naming two of the biggest names of all: Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce. The hip-hop mogul responded, first, in lyrics on his new album, and then last week in an interview with journalist Elliott Wilson.


JAY-Z: Well, I'm offended by that, because, first of all - and this is going to sound arrogant - but my presence is charity, just who I am, just like Obama's is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation and outside of America is enough.

YOUNG: With that, the debate was joined. Gene Demby writes about race and culture as part of NPR's Code Switch team. So, Gene, the comparison to Obama, but then that phrase: My presence is charity. That really got people.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Yeah. That seems to really be the thing that people got hung up on. Jay-Z is the most prominent, most successful rapper in the history of the genre, and he clearly knows this. I mean, he thinks it about himself. You know, as he famously said, I'm not a businessman. I'm a business, man, right? People use him as a shorthand for hip-hop. If you want to talk about hip-hop successes, or its successes, you kind of just throw Jay-Z in there as a shorthand, as an avatar.

YOUNG: And as you say, all the people who don't like Jay-Z, boy, all they needed was that line about charity.

DEMBY: Yeah. It was catnip to people who are inclined to view hip-hop really uncharitably. You know, it encapsulates this idea that hip-hop artists are selfish and apolitical and greedy and kind of self-involved.

YOUNG: Well, it's not that Jay-Z is uncharitable. We - you know, we've seen him at charity events. We - it's not that he doesn't have a social conscience. We saw him and his wife last week standing with their arms around Trayvon Martin's parents. But Belafonte pointed to Bruce Springsteen as someone to emulate. Bruce Springsteen, who, if there was a cause, he is there. And that seemed to really offend Jay-Z.

DEMBY: Yeah. That was the thing that really seemed to rankle Jay-Z, which is actually interesting to see, because Jay-Z's whole image is that he's unflappable. And so when Belafonte said, give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you're talking. I really think he's black. You could understand why if you're Jay-Z and you're hearing that, that might get under your skin. You have this civil rights icon, basically, pulling your card and saying that you're insufficiently down for the cause.

YOUNG: Well, as Jay-Z said, he's bigging(ph) Springsteen over me. Let's hear some of Jay-Z's musical response to Harry Belafonte. This is the song "Nickels and Dimes" from his latest, huge, album, "Magna Carta Holy Grail."


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Mr. Belafonte, come and chop a (bleep) down. Mr. Day-O, major fail. Respect these youngins, boys. It's my time now. Hublot homie, two door homie, you don't know all the (bleep) I do for the homies.

YOUNG: Whoa. You know, Harry Belafonte being referred to as Mr. Day-O, of course, from his "Banana Boat Song," but he called him boy.

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, a lot has been made of the boy comment, too. I think it's one of those things that, out of context, sounds way worse than it may actually be - have been intended. I don't think he was calling him a boy, to belittle him. I think boy is just one of those appellations that you give to people, like - I mean, he calls him homie, too, right? I don't think they're homies, either.

YOUNG: But it did offend people, who found it unseemly. Here's this hip-hop star, but here's this, not just an icon, but an elder. Remind us what Harry Belafonte did.

DEMBY: Belafonte has unimpeachable civil rights credentials, right? He helped fundraise for Martin Luther King. In fact, the Birmingham Campaign was planned, in large part, in Harry Belafonte's New York City apartment. He was instrumental in organizing in the 1960s. And he was a good, close friend of Martin Luther King and several other civil rights activists. He's been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, and other things. So he has a long resume as a social activist, probably longer than his resume, actually, as an actor and a singer at this point.

If you're under the age of 30, you may have never experienced Harry Belafonte as an entertainer. In fact, you may not know him at all. And so for Jay-Z to go after or to respond to Harry Belafonte this way, one, he does it in a way that rappers would do it, which is on a song. But also, you know, Harry Belafonte is a safer target, not because Harry Belafonte isn't revered, but because a lot of Jay-Z fans might not even know who Harry Belafonte is, right? He's just an old guy who could be a fogey.

YOUNG: Well - but now, maybe they do, and maybe that's a good thing if they find out. And Harry Belafonte went on Chris Hayes' program on MSNBC last week to respond to Jay-Z. Let's listen.


BELAFONTE: I would like to take this opportunity to say to Jay-Z and to Beyonce, I'm wide open. My heart is filled with nothing but hope, and then in the promise that we could sit and have a one-on-one. And let's understand each other rather than trying to answer these questions and answer these nuances in a public place.

YOUNG: Is it possible, Gene, that this could be a long-overdue meeting of the generations, in which each finds out a little more about each other?

DEMBY: So these intergenerational spats between the civil rights generation and hip-hop generation are not new. I mean...

YOUNG: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...C. Delores Tucker was this very famous civil rights activist, and she had this long-standing beef with Tupac Shakur. I mean, they were almost sniping at each other constantly. She sued him. He called her out on an album. It was this long thing. And so it's not a new thing for prominent hip-hop artists and prominent civil rights leaders to kind of bicker and fight over what they think is a direction of the culture.

YOUNG: Yeah. But I'm wondering, too, if it's a good conversation to have. Because while the older generation might want something more from the younger, the younger is resenting a certain burden. You write about this, and we've heard about this before on the program. We just talked with financial columnist Michelle Singletary about Tyler Perry's programs on Oprah's channel. Some blacks are offended at his depiction of women, but Michelle said, look, it's not Tyler Perry's job to represent all blacks, all the time. He's in entertainment. And, you know, you say this is a part of being a celebrity and a young black today.

DEMBY: This is a phenomenon that's around every African-American celebrity of a certain prominence, right? Michael Jordan was always criticized for not being more politically engaged, for not saying - speaking up against Nike's practices - its labor practices, right. Oprah Winfrey was criticized for not throwing her cultural weight into politics. Her endorsement of Obama was the first time she'd ever made the public statement, really, about her political leanings.

And so, Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Jay-Z now are all kind of Rorschach tests. You can read any of them as either triumphs of the entrepreneurial spirit, or you could read them as kind of greedy and indifferent. And this is an old, old responsibility that is fairly/unfairly placed on black celebrities.

And I think this is very different from the days when Harry Belafonte or, you know, Jackie Robinson or Bill Russell. Their blackness was an inherently political act, right. They could not go into the world and not be kind of confounding to the status quo, right. And so now, you have this generation of celebrities who do have some agency. And that is still something that everyone is kind of grappling with, like, what they owe to the world, and what they owe to themselves.

YOUNG: Gene Demby, people might want to continue the conservation with you, and so we want to let them know how to do that. You can find him on Twitter @GeeDee215. That's G-E-E-D-E-E-2-1-5. He writes about race, ethnicity and cultures as part of NPR's Code Switch team. And you can read this post about Jay-Z and Harry Belafonte at npr.org/codeswitch. Gene, thanks so much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Robin.


DION DIMUCCI: (Singing) Has anybody here seen my old friend, Martin?

YOUNG: Love Jay-Z, going to see him and JT at Fenway. But nothing beats a first love, so a bit more Belafonte. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. I'll take that ticket if you don't want it, Robin. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.