Protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in St. Louis, Missouri
Protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in St. Louis, Missouri

OPINION: When it comes to Black Lives Matter celebs need to show up, pay up or shut up

By Jamal Grootboom Time of article published Jun 5, 2020

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The glitter wears off celebrities and influencers rather quickly in times of strife, with very few willing or able to add their formidable voices to fight for social justice.

Their popularity comes from the people, their fame feeds off the people, their unfathomable wealth is gained from the people … yet when it comes to the suffering of those very people, many celebrities saddle up their high horses and, at most, nod an acknowledgment on social media, and ride on by.

Over the past week, the United States has exploded in protest action over the death of George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis who literally died at the knee of a white police officer. There is something very poignant about that, a black man dying at a white man’s knee. 

The symbolism - total subservience, hopelessness, a master lording over a slave - ripped deep incisions into America’s already scarred history of racism and its running battles to curb police brutality.

Most recent research indicates the number of police killings in the US disproportionately affects African Americans. Despite only making up 13 percent of the population, black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police. 

These shocking statistics have most likely fuelled the anger of thousands of Americans who have taken the streets in protest since last weekend, as the world joined in collective outrage, breathing life into the George Floyd social justice movement  - and many celebrities and influencers wanted their piece of the pie. 

Just with their usual thoughts and prayers along with their “I stand with you" posts, mind you. Nothing concrete, nothing that would force change for the better, nothing that would give George Floyd’s terrible death any semblance of meaning.

However, this time round, fans were wise to the ones they follow with such adoration. Fans called on their favourite celebrities to weigh in and open their purses to a just cause. This led to a public relations disaster of epic proportions, as celebrities expressed some unexpected views.

In a May 28 live Instagram broadcast with fellow rapper Fat Joe, Lil Wayne, said that people who were upset over Floyd's death should not demonise all police or all Americans of a certain race. Instead, he argued, it's more productive to make focused criticism and concentrate on what Americans can do as individuals to address problems in society. 

The backlash was fast and furious.

Shameik Moore, who voiced Miles Morales in "Spiderman: Into The Spiderverse", tweeted: “We(black people) have to work on our community before blaming everything on “racist” and police”.  

His Twitter rant did not call for an end to police violence and his subsequent backtracking and apology did not go down well.

Then there were those celebrities who condemned the protests and felt suitably positioned to tell black people how they should be handling themselves in the wake of Floyd’s death. This, in a country with a country with a chequered history of slavery.

There were also celebrities weighing in on the matter without fully understanding what they were saying and the danger of their utterances. They faced collective and immediate backlash for their lack of empathy and understanding of issues of social justice.

George Floyd is just the latest face of the scourge that is police brutality in the US., Ahmaud Arbery and the many other black people have been killed at the hands of police officers. 

They may be the faces of the protest, the catalyst for people taking to the streets, but the whole point of these marches, which have gained global traction, are about Black Americans being fed up with racism and how white supremacy has become a cancer eating away at the country.

Protesters believe the time for vigils and prayer has long passed. Action is their demand. However, the response of the US government has been lacklustre, to say the least.

President Donald Trump only appeared to encourage official violence, telling his governors in a video conference call on Monday: “You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.”

Capitalism appeared to play a major role in directing celebrity reaction to this crisis.  

Those who were screaming and shouting about looting and rioting were viewed as prioritising property and possessions over the lives of black people.

Locally, there was also a cacophony of people lacking range with regards to commenting on the matter. Rapper, AKA, told African Americans “to come home” as a solution to the problem.

 The “Fela In Versace” rapper gave off the vibe of many MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters telling people to go back where they come from as if America wasn’t a country built by immigrants.

Influencer Sarah Langa shared online conspiracy theories about how those who were against racism were protesting, even with the danger of being infected by coronavirus, while those who supported racism were staying home. 

She absurdly implied that there was a bigger plan at play. Another sad case of an empty vessel.International influencers weren’t any better. 

While prominent black beauty influencers such as Jackie Aina and Alissa Ashley immediately jumped to action, many of their white and non-black counterparts simply shared #BlackLivesMatter on their social media platforms and returned to regular programming or took forever to even say anything.

One of those celebrity influencers was Nikita Dragun. She has a history of being called out numerous times for appropriating black features and black fishing - where  people alter their appearance to appear black - on her Instagram page. 

She copied and pasted: “I am not black but I will stand with you. I am not black but I will fight for you. I am not black but I will defend you. I am not black but I see you. I am not black but I value you. #BlackLivesMatter”  from another post. 

Claiming that she was struggling to find the words in a followup post. And after she got called out for being flippant about the Black Lives Matter movement, she made the issue about herself and only donated after the internet bullied her into it.

On the local front, Qaanita Orrie, another influencer, posted a long-winded message about Black Lives Matter using a video of a police officer who killed a black man’s dog. 

She also managed to make the issue about herself and how she felt seeing the dog being killed. She also made it more about the dog instead of the plight of black people in America. Since the backlash, Orrie has deleted her Instagram account, mostly liking waiting for the storm to blow over.

The concept of self promotion at all cost is one of the biggest bugbears with people on huge platforms, trying to add their voices to issues that they are not qualified to speak on.

Celebrities need to remember that this isn’t about them, their feelings or telling people how they should feel or react. 

This issue is about an institution that has little value for black lives and Black Americans have reached the end of their tether.

With celebrity comes enormous influence and power. Rather than relentlessly using this to line their pockets, stars and influencers should channel this power for the greater good. And do so with great responsibility, for ignorant utterances can ignite flames that money cannot extinguish.

If that’s asking too much, celebrities should instead put their money where their mouths are. Open that Mouawad 1001 Nights Diamond purse and contribute to just causes. Shut up or show up.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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