If you’ve been anywhere near a computer or an iPhone in the past several months, you may have noticed the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter taking social media by storm. The hashtag is the product of the mass social movement following the deaths of several young black men at the hands of police brutality, ignited from Ferguson to New York City to Baltimore. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is intended to bring awareness to the longstanding institutionalized racism towards the black population in the American justice system as well as the socioeconomic inequality in American society as a whole. And now, it seems that the hashtag is about to get even greater recognition with the involvement of American hip-hop power couple, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
After the failure of the American legal system in bringing justice to the brutal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, mass protests and demonstrations have spread across the country. Mainstream news coverage of the movement has omitted coverage of the originally peaceful demonstrations by protesters and has framed the movement as a violent riot instigated by disorderly “thugs”. Numerous cultural icons and political figures have taken advantage of their fame to show solidarity with the social movement in juxtaposition to the skewed media representation of the protesters.
According to activist and writer Dream Hampton, the power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been privately donating tens of thousands of dollars towards bailing out protesters from jail in Ferguson and Baltimore as well as towards building infrastructure. The activist and close friend of Jay-Z expressed via Twitter that the Carters have contributed “too much to list” but have “always [insisted] folk keep quiet”. In a series of now deleted tweets, Hampton defended the couple’s ongoing support for the Ferguson and Baltimore community.
Hampton spoke out against the financial barriers to protesting when she wrote about the Carters’ donations to the protest. “They’re waging war on black resistance in a multitude of ways, many of them financially. Protest is literally punished with tariffs,” expressed Hampton. “When they fine and arrest people for protesting, more opportunities for exploitation by the state are possible with each encounter.”
Other internet response to the Carter’s hefty contributions to the movement has been startlingly negative despite earlier criticism for the couple’s lack of commentary during the events.
Much of the negative response to the news of the couple’s support for the Ferguson and Baltimore protesters questions the authenticity of the couple’s agenda and criticizes them for supporting the “criminals” who “destroyed [the] city”. Ironically, the Carters have also been previously criticized for their lack of political activism for the black community. With respect, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been known to keep mum regarding their personal affiliations and political opinions in the public eye.
In light of the negative criticism regarding the couple’s support (or the lack thereof, depending on the perspective) for the black community, the superstar couple’s anonymity and diffidence surrounding the protests were actually a quite smart and well-though out approach. With hostile response regardless of their action or inaction, the couple remained anonymous and silent to avoid drawing attention away from the message of the movement. As evidenced by the negative backlash when news of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s donations to bail out protesters broke out, the story was twisted and misinterpreted so far from the original message that Hampton had intended.
So what lesson can we learn from Beyoncé and Jay-Z about political activism?
Without getting too lost in the irony of having Bey and Jay headline this article, the controversy over the couple’s bailout of the protesters alludes to the misconceptions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the pivotal role of the media. With the distorted mainstream media representation of the protests and the negative connotations attributed to the protesters, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s contributions in the form of private financial aid has helped protect the freedom of civil disobedience and the right to protest. Giving a whole new meaning to putting your money where your mouth is, Beyoncé and Jay-Z show us that there is always more than meets the eye. Just as peaceful demonstrations went unnoticed by the major news channels, certain political action that do not centre on violence and conflict will go unnoticed. The media does not give us a full understanding of the #BlackLivesMatter movement or the people behind it.
When the one of the most powerful and influential black couple in America shies away from speaking out about their financial support for the Ferguson and Baltimore protesters, you know there is a serious problem of representation in the media. Marginalized voices need to be heard and that cannot happen in a system that punishes protests and condemns protesters as “thugs”.