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What’s Free? How The Cult Of Celebrity Trivializes Social Activism
The public's hyperfocus on celebrities and their intent with their activism may be distracting from the actual issues at hand.
On Monday (January 7th) Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted executive clemency to 29-year-old Cyntoia Brown, a former child sex captive who was sentenced to life in prison at 16 after killing her captor in an attempt to liberate herself. Human trafficking activists, specifically Black women, have relentlessly advocated for her commutation. Brown’s story has received renewed attention in recent years due to the Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story documentary, and the amplification of her plight by celebrities like Rihanna and unlikely criminal justice reform advocate Kim Kardashian.
Kim Kardashian was instrumental in Brown’s case, reportedly paying lawyers to do the necessary work to present her case for clemency. The reality star did the same for 63-year-old Alice Marie Johnson, a Memphis woman who had been harshly sentenced to life in federal prison for a minor role in a drug operation. Johnson was granted clemency by President Donald Trump in April 2018 after Kim Kardashian met with him on her behalf.
Brown will take part in what the state called “assigned transition and re-entry programming,” then be freed on August 7th after serving 15 years of the sentence. She will then be under supervised parole for the next 10 years. While Brown didn’t receive a pardon (which would delete her conviction from her record) the lawyers that Kardashian funded have nonetheless helped her get from behind bars.
The commutations have colored the reality star’s reputation with an unlikely shade of nuance. The 38-year-old faces irrevocable ire from many Black women for her history of racially insensitive comments and a perception of being a serial appropriator of Black culture. But she’s leveraging that very infamy, and the fame and fortune gained from it, toward progress for Black people in the prison-industrial complex. It was her celebrity, as well as her husband Kanye West’s spectacle, that got her a meeting with America’s Celebrity-in-Chief Donald Trump, which resulted in Johnson’s clemency. Many people recoiled at the photo of the two reality stars in the oval office, but in the aftermath of this moment, it became clear how even this notorious brand of fame could be used for good.
\u201cGreat meeting with @KimKardashian today, talked about prison reform and sentencing.\u201d— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump) 1527721148
Despite Kardashian’s positive efforts, her public perception hasn’t totally shifted. In a letter thanking people for their advocacy for Brown, Governor Haslam omitted Kardashian. Perhaps the tabloid stigma associated with the Kardashian brand rendered Haslam unwilling to evoke her name in such a serious matter, even if she was a driving force behind the commutation. There were also many social media commentators who protectively championed the activists who have fought for Brown for years, wary of the possibility of a Kardashian once again eclipsing Black women. Kardashian’s activism and the reaction to it reflect the complicated dynamics of modern-day celebrity activism. Her reputation for attention-courting has made people question her true intentions, but to paraphrase Meek Mill in an interview with Big Boy, it shouldn’t matter if the result is a life saved or justice served.
It’s impossible to know Kim or any other celebrity’s intentions with their advocacy, but the incessant sensationalism surrounding their work needlessly shifts the cultural conversation away from who’s being helped and why to who’s helping and why. Devout fans overstate their favorite’s work as a means of fandom, while those who continuously speculate a celebrity's political intentions are as guilty of trivializing the work as they believe the self-gratifying celebrities to be.
Entertainers’ proximity to social causes has become a major barometer of their perceived personal connection to everyday people. Consider the disparate reactions to a pair of rappers’ recent responses to the Surviving R. Kelly docu-series: after Joyner Lucas prematurely issued words of comfort to the controversial singer accused of serial abuse of Black girls, many fans noted that they would “never” listen to him, while others championed Houston legend Bun B for condemning R. Kelly’s alleged actions when so many of his music peers have yet to. Being on the perceived right side of a hot-button issue can bolster an entertainer’s public standing, just like a perception of silence is damning, even if you’re contributing more than words ever could.
JAY-Z, then a minority owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, received criticism in 2014 for not wearing one of the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts that he gave to LeBron James and Nets players after the tragic murder of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. Even though he took a picture with players who were wearing the shirts, a perception grew that the iconic music star and entrepreneur didn’t want to publicly align with the fight against police brutality. Writer and founder of ILY mag Erika Ramirez echoed the sentiment of many when she tweeted that “with the influence he has, he should've put one on first.” It was revealed that JAY-Z’s refusal to wear the shirt wasn’t about politics, but vanity: the shirts were too big for him. And little did the public know, his contributions to the fight against police brutality were consistently significant enough to not require symbolic solidarity.
dream hampton, a friend of the Carters and producer of Surviving R. Kelly, tweeted in 2015 that JAY-Z “wired tens of thousands in mins” to help bail out people in Baltimore during the city’s uprisings. She also said that “when BLM needed infrastructure money for the many chapters that we’re growing like beautiful dandelions, Carters wrote a huge check” to Ferguson activists. But hampton then deleted the tweets, lamenting that “[people] believe what they want to” about the couple who do “too much to list that they insist folk keep quiet.”
hampton’s comments exemplified the catch-22 of celebrity activism. It appears that not enough people have realized that celebrities don’t start movements, they merely augment existing ones. When celebrities are contributing to movements in silence, they get criticized for being apathetic by an unknowing public. When they act in public like Kardashian, they’re criticized for being opportunistic, or otherwise, derail proceedings like JAY-Z and Beyoncé inadvertently did at a 2013 march for Trayvon Martin. Shaun King recalled the march in the DailyKOS, reflecting that “I was literally steps away from JAY-Z and Beyoncé...when they stepped on the scene, and the entire time they were there, they were all anyone cared about.” The optic reflects a society in the cult of celebrity, sometimes too starstruck to even listen to a speech affirming their lives.
King surmised that the reaction “caused JAY-Z to feel that it's in everybody's best interest if he goes behind-the-scenes-incognito on his giving and his advocacy,” echoing hampton’s statements. Indeed, JAY-Z rhymed on 2013’s “Nickels And Dimes” from his Magna Carta Holy Grail album that "the greatest form of giving is anonymous to anonymous." That quote pales in comparison to another 2013 quote that “my presence is charity.” Perhaps Jay has learned since then that his presence in the midst of social issues isn’t always charity, but a distraction.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s difficult for a celebrity to anonymously amplify someone’s story to millions. “Anonymous” people don’t get to use their influence to meet with a politician to advocate for a cause. People in Cyntoia Brown’s predicament deserve more visibility (and resources) from public figures with his and Kardashian’s profile, without the resistance of social media skeptics wondering why they’re doing the good deed. It’s daunting enough that there are conservatives and other mean-spirited people who vilify (or boycott) celebrities doing work for Black and Brown people, entertainers shouldn’t have to fight against the skepticism of the very people who want the same justice they’re helping enact.
It can be argued that Kardashian’s criminal justice work is an elaborate ruse to pander to Black America’s consciousness and maintain relevance as she approaches her 40s, but the more critical argument is would Cyntonia Brown or Alice Johnson or any other person in peril care who helped granted them their freedom and why?
In a conversation with Big Boy, Meek Mill revealed that the men he was incarcerated with told him: “If you can make any change to any extent do it.” That’s the strategy he’s been implementing, since being released on bail from his prolonged probation sentence in May of 2018, even crossing paths with Kim Kardashian at a November 2018 criminal justice reform summit. Meek also told Big Boy that he would consider meeting with Trump if he felt that their conversation could be proactive and fruitful, despite the possibility of him being excoriated on social media for the visit. During three separate stretches in Pennsylvania prisons, Meek had been in the trenches with incarcerated people who are suffering while the general public learned the dynamics of their struggle by watching 13thfrom the comfort of their home. He knows that they have a dire need for liberation, which is uninterested in our privileged speculation of who’s doing what work and why.
For Brown, Johnson, and the millions suffering like them, the road to salvation through clemency is paved with ambiguous intentions. Would they be better off in a society that doesn’t allow people like Kim Kardashian to become an icon from sensation and appropriation, and doesn’t let the Carters hoard their fortune in an imbalanced economy that necessitates and exploits their second class citizen status? Yes. But are they now in a better position in part because of the rich and famous coming across their stories? Yes.
It’s well established that the work on-the-ground organizers are doing has collectively been trivialized and co-opted by opportunists, and Black trauma is too often fodder for human interest stories and feel-good cause célèbres, but it’s also true that those granted freedom and justice don't care who incites it.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.