Green Party Vice Presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka isn’t feeling Beyoncé‘s recent attempts at social activism, and he’s not alone. Author, activist and feminist icon bell hooks has also harshly critiqued Beyoncé’s social impact, describing the singer as an “anti-feminist” and “terrorist” in 2014, then publishing an unflattering review of her latest album “Lemonade,” this past May.
Both Baraka and hooks argue that Beyoncé’s mainstream platform contradicts her displays of social consciousness. As far as they’re concerned, you can’t be the world’s biggest pop star— capitalism’s prettiest cash cow— while claiming to be a “woke” freedom fighter.
Baraka summed up this viewpoint on his blog, calling Bey “a commodified caricature of Black opposition,” and dismissing her pro-Black Super Bowl performance and recent support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as blatant pandering to her audience. To Baraka and hooks, Bey’s politically-charged statements are ploys to get fans to keep spending their attention and money on her content and products in spite of the glaring social ills surrounding them. Baraka and hooks both seem to view social consciousness, or “wokeness,” in terms of duality.
Duality is a divisive mindset that categorizes things absolutely: Love or hate, good or evil, right or wrong. With duality, the answer has to be “either/or,” but it can never be “both,” or “neither.”
In the context of “wokeness,” duality could be used to cut down Colin Kaepernick— who collects a multi-million-dollar salary from one of America’s least progressive corporations— for his sudden social conscious and outspoken support of the oppressed. It could also be used to critique President Barack Obama— whom Baraka called an “Uncle Tom” in August— for his subtle, measured attempts at changing the system from within.
That’s because duality forces us to be all in or all out. It’s the same logic that expects true artists to starve and powerful politicians to be perfect. And in the case of Beyoncé and others like her, this either/or philosophy is being used to discourage the genuine efforts of the few stars brave enough to step into positions of social leadership.
Whether their contribution is symbolic or substantive, every public figure who speaks or acts on behalf of the oppressed is an ally in the mission for social justice. That’s why we have to be cautious not to turn a multi-layered movement into a superficial competition.
There are no activist Olympics. You don’t get a gold, silver or bronze medal for your “wokeness.” You’re either up for the fight, or you’re not.
So how can we accurately measure or compare the conscious of our social icons? It’s as silly as trying to scientifically evaluate an artist’s creativity or a politician’s integrity. All we can do is take people at their word and hold them accountable for their actions.
But the recent backlash celebrities like Beyoncé, Kaepernick and Cam Newton have received for their varying responses to the world’s social ills ignore reality and oversimplify an issue that can’t be split neatly into two categories.
Justice defines the righteous balance of truth and power that we all seek and desire. But truth and power aren’t limited to the dueling states that Baraka and hooks’ logic suggests. No human is completely honest or all-powerful. And no public figure is absolutely woke or problematic. Whether the subject is Jesse Williams or A$AP Rocky, rushing to label people based off one action or statement only serves our subconscious desire to understand without experiencing. But the truly conscious don’t seek such simple conclusions.
Whether you’re the buzzingest bee in Bey’s hive or as skeptical of the queen’s motives as Baraka and hooks, will you ever really know what Beyoncé cares about? And does it actually matter if her recent “wokeness’ is the result of a true awakening or a genius marketing scheme? What difference does it make if Kaepernick is only sitting because he knows his playing career is on the decline and, with millions of guaranteed dollars owed to him whether he plays or not, he can afford to ruffle some feathers on his way out of the league?
How someone profits or suffers as a result of their sacrifice is far beyond the point. The only point that matters is that they did something when no one else could or would. And as a result of their action, we’re all talking about the issues. Some of us are even acting with them. But it doesn’t matter if you talk, act or do both, as long as you’re doing what you can with the tools God gave you.
That’s why using Kaepernick’s protest to shame Cam Newton for his lack thereof is as pointless as using bell hooks’ academic activism to downplay Beyoncé’s artistic protest. As the back-up quarterback on a mediocre team, Kaepernick can afford the added scrutiny and distractions that comes with his protest. As the star quarterback of a Super Bowl contender, Cam Newton cannot. As a symbol of Black excellence, we don’t need Cam to lecture facetious reporters on social injustice. We need him to score touchdowns and continue destroying the stereotype that Black men don’t have the mental capacity to excel at quarterback.
Expecting Cam to channel Fred Hampton during his next press conference leads to the kind of buffoonish quotes he’s given GQ and ESPN recently, which featured him dabbing clumsily around all the points of the Kaepernick controversy to keep from offending any of his fans, sponsors or employers. You can call him a sell out for that, but at least consider everything he’s giving us in the deal.
Cam is a symbol of Black power, like Jay and Beyonce, or Barack and Michelle. And as Jay told Harry Belafonté during their 2013 feud, their presence on the world’s stage is worth as much or more than any single charitable donation or radical comment they can make. Expecting them to sacrifice their carefully calculated positions of power on suicide missions for justice is not brave. It’s detrimental to the progress they symbolize as well as the future progress they could make if they stay in their lane.
Would Baraka have preferred for President Obama to Black out on Congress during his first month in office, demanding reparations and that they send all the inmates in Attica back to Africa? Or are the hundreds of non-violent felons who’ve had their sentences commuted during his tenure better served by his “Uncle Tom” approach to power? Would hooks prefer Beyoncé adopt her intellectual approach to self-expression and lose her global influence and reach to Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus? Would a cameo from the mothers of Trayvon, Tamir and Mike in one of their videos have been more genuine or impactful?
Both the true and the powerful among us represent vital parts of the same agenda. We need heroes with money and influence who we can trust to be benevolent just as much as we need renegades willing to throw truth grenades at the status quo. But if we want the justice we claim to seek, we have to accept the realties of truth and power. They are both potent tools of progress. That’s why we have to celebrate Nas for inspiring kids to go to college with the same fervor we celebrate Jay for paying their tuitions. But we can’t devalue their contributions by comparing them.
Duality is not the only perspective we have to make sense of two opposing forces. Polarity places opposite points, like north and south, on the same plane of existence, making it possible to navigate the space between them without being absolutely tied to one or the other. If we can understand truth and power as polar states of being that can co-exist, like north and south, instead of dueling forces of opposition that must be separated, like good and evil, we will get a lot closer to creating liberty and justice for all. Until then, quit playing judge in the woke Olympics and focus on how your own words and actions can be used to balance the scales of justice. Whatever you contribute, big or small, pop or underground, it makes a difference.