When people see and hear about celebrities, more often than not they think about the advantages that come with being in the limelight: the money, the cars, the designer clothes and luxurious vacations. With social media now more prevalent than ever, celebrities’ lives are lived moment by moment and dollar by dollar on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. What people do not see are the things that celebrities do and have done for centuries to give back to those who are less fortunate than they are or give voice to causes that are near and dear to who they are at the end of the day. Before social media and even before color television, celebrities were using their platforms to change the world. That type of advocacy and activism continues and follows a deep and rich history of African American celebrities who lent their voice to causes and movements that have changed lives, changed policy and changed the world.
More and more we are witnessing celebrities speak up regarding various causes in our society. From Black Lives Matter, to #METOO, to mass incarceration, political issues, women’s rights, subpar educational systems, or the plight of new moms, celebrities are making their thoughts and opinions public. However, this is nothing new.
During the Civil Rights movement many celebrities made their thoughts and opinions about the treatment of African Americans in this society known. Some of them even protested to the detriment of their careers in the United States and sought to showcase their talents abroad where people were more accepting of Blacks.
During the Civil Rights movement, many performance venues, restaurants and hotels practiced racial segregation. Many entertainers were forced to use the servant entrance and not allowed to stay in local hotels but had to opt for hotels that only serviced African Americans. To combat this blatant racist behavior, some noted celebrities refused to perform in segregated venues. Celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr., and Lena Horne made it clear that they would not perform in segregated venues. Not only did they take a stand by not performing, they also spent money supporting the movement for equal rights by donating to organizations such as the NAACP.
Unfortunately, the fight continues. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in Major League Baseball. He fought against the prejudice and discrimination and was an outspoken advocate for Civil Rights. While professional sports teams across the board are more integrated than ever, there is still a divide when it comes to equal treatment in this country. On a positive note, there are still sports figures who are willing to address these issues.
Former NFL player Colin Kaepernick has been the face of this cause over the past few years. According to his website www.kaepernick7.com, the mission of his foundation is to “fight oppression of all kinds globally, through education and social activism.” Because of his stance on racial equality, Amnesty International has named Kaepernick as their Ambassador of Conscience.
Recently, during his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame, former NFL player Randy Moss wore a tie with the names of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and others. This was a bold statement recognizing those who have lost their lives at the hands of police.
Celebrities have not stopped at working toward Civil Rights, celebrities champion other causes and another noted cause is education. Local celebrities such as Jennifer Hudson, who hosts “Hatch Day” annually with her sister work to ensure that children are prepared to return to school with the supplies that they need. Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper has committed financially to Chicago Public Schools. This past weekend, Chicago Rapper Lil Dirk, was in the community passing out bookbags filled with supplies.
Not only instrumental in the effort to provide book bags to Chicago youth returning to school, Chicago’s own Vic Mensa, who was grand marshal in this year’s Bud Billiken Parade, protested during the parade route about Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot Chicago youth Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
Lebron James, noted basketball player, recently opened the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The school which started with 240 third and fourth graders in its inaugural class, offers students and families much more than education. The school offers free transportation for the students and GED courses and job placement for parents. James, who has been known to pay college tuition for students, joins the growing list of celebrities who have funded scholarships and paid to send students to college.
Women’s Rights and issues specifically related to women have also been championed by celebrities. From the March for Women’s Rights to the #MeToo movement to issues around motherhood, African American celebrities have lent their voices to these causes. Recently, Serena Williams and Beyonce spoke candidly about the issues they experienced having children by cesarean section. Not only has their candidness showed their humanity, they have been vocal about women addressing the issues that result from childbirth: weight gain, health complications and depression.
Both Beyonce and Serena have championed other issues as well. Serena is an advocate for victims of domestic violence, having lost a sister to domestic violence, and works closely with Allstate and their Purple Purse campaign. She is also a supporter of UNICEF and has her own Serena Williams fund. Beyonce has a list of philanthropic efforts she supports, and, in many cases, it is a family affair with her husband mogul/rapper Jay-Z just as dedicated to the causes as she is.
African American celebrities are dedicated to causes surrounding mental health. Many celebrities have been very vocal about their struggles with mental illness and advocate for others to seek help. Mariah Carey and longtime actress Jennifer Lewis have both been open about their struggles with bipolar disorder. Former Chicago Bear Brandon Marshall was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and has started Project375 to help others battling this illness.
American Idol winner Fantasia has spoken about battling depression for years, which led to a failed suicide attempt. Michelle Williams, gospel artist and former Destiny’s Child, member also speaks candidly about battling depression since her teenage years. Williams shared in a 2013, Huffington Post article that “We’re taught, ‘Just go to church and pray about it. The Lord is going to heal you.’” She further stated that “…in the meantime, I believe God-gifted people, physicians, doctors, therapists—that’s your healing. Take advantage of it. Go see a professional so that they can assess you. It’s ok if you’re going through something. Depression is not OK, but it is OK to get help.”
The NBA has created the NBA Cares program, which according to their website cares.nba.com, is to support fans, families and communities by promoting healthy minds and bodies and increasing awareness around emotional well-being. Players from the NBA, WNBA and coaches share their stories and their journey’s on the site. The NBA Players association has also stepped up to develop a mental health and wellness program for players.
Boys and Girls Clubs
Celebrities such as Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Barry Bonds and Ashanti have all been supporters of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Celebrities from various entertainment backgrounds have all shared the impact that the Boys and Girls Clubs had in their lives. The program provided many of them alternatives to hanging out and being home alone after school. The stories of how the Boys and Girls Clubs saved them are part of the reason that the organization has been in existence since 1860.
Celebrities have given back in a number of ways. James Brown created the celebrated anthem “Say It Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud” in 1968, the height of the Civil Rights movement. Brown’s anthem came out a year after Aretha Franklin recorded her chart topping song “Respect,” written and originally performed by Otis Redding, a song that became popular with both the Black Power and Human Rights movement. In her memoir Aretha: From These Roots, Franklin stated that “[Respect] reflected the need of the nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher-everyone wanted respect.” Just a few months ago, actor Donald Glover under his musical alter ego Childish Gambino released “This is America,” which speaks to issues of race and gun violence in America. These are only a few examples of how celebrities are shedding light on the larger issues in society.
Not only do celebrities lend their time, talent and money to the causes that are near and dear to their hearts, they also create their own foundations in order to give back and support the people and causes that they have an interest in. What is most important is that they are showing that they too are a part of the struggles and issues we all face in society. They also show that dealing with heavy personal issues such as educational deficits, mental health and domestic violence, that it is ok to ask for help and seek treatment if necessary. Most celebrities have issues and causes that they advocate for on a daily basis, and the reality is that many of these causes need the attention and notoriety that celebrity status can bring.
The even bigger issue is when will some of these issues be resolved? African Americans are now more than ever living in what appears to be a separate but unequal society. African Americans are still being held, detained and killed in record numbers by law enforcement. Domestic violence and mental health are still serious issues within our communities, not to mention the crime rates. When will the world give Black and Proud African Americans and the African American community the R-E-S-P-E-C-T it has earned and worked so hard for?