Everything but the Song: Celebrities must be more conscious about their activism

Rihanna and Jay-Z, among other prominent and influential celebrities, often overshadow grassroots movements even if they mean well. (Photo from Marta Rodriguez / Photo from Ciaran Monaghan)

It’s hard to critique Rihanna — a beauty icon, fearless fashionista, pop star and philanthropist. In all of her business endeavors, she’s paid particular attention to the needs of communities underserved in makeup and fashion — particularly Black women. 

Unfortunately, it seems that she didn’t apply her usual precision when choosing the honorees for her famed Diamond Ball, the yearly celebration for the Clara Lionel Foundation, an organization Rihanna founded to benefit impoverished communities around the world. 

This year, “@badgalriri” will honor Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, and civil rights activist Shaun King will receive the Diamond Ball Award. 

Rihanna has a long history of support for Mottley. In 2018, after Mottley was elected as prime minister of Barbados, she took to Instagram to express her support: “Well deserved and about time! Breaking barriers and making history in so many ways!!!”

As for King, Rihanna’s support of the activist leaves many eyebrows, including my own, raised. 

I can’t dismiss King’s efforts to draw national attention to the murder of Michael Brown, who was killed by police officer Darren Wilson. I also can’t dismiss his civil-rights based writing at the height of police brutality and violence in cities like Ferguson and Charleston. 

However, since King’s rise to prominence, and with the Black Lives Matter movement as his springboard, he’s faced many challenges and controversies as his platform continues to expand.

This list is long and hefty.

According to BuzzFeed News, two organizations he founded,  “Justice Together” and “Justice. That’s All,” were abruptly disbanded after raising thousands of dollars. In an investigation done by the Daily Beast’s Goldie Taylor, the reporter exposed discrepancies in fundraising totals King raised for multiple charities, including a Haiti relief project and an unauthorized crowdfunding project for the family of Tamir Rice. 

In January, King responded to accusations that he failed to distribute funds to the intended beneficiaries. 

“On March 1st, I am releasing a public accounting of every dollar I’ve ever raised for families in the Black Lives Matter Movement, along with statements of support from them clearly stating that I have never done such a thing,” he said in a blog post. 

After 180 days, the public, and more importantly, the charities and families he promised financial support, have received nothing. 

On top of that, King publicly berated Clarissa Brooks, a young queer Black woman, when she called him out for the misappropriated funds. He even threatened legal action against her by strongarming her with prominent civil rights attorneys.

Long story short, Shaun King is not only a charity scam artist but a threat to less prominent Black activists, particularly Black women activists. This is why choosing him as an awardee for Rihanna’s CLF Diamond Ball startles me. 

In defense of Rihanna, we have no way of knowing if she chose King herself or if her team at CLF knew of the controversy surrounding King. But their actions are a commentary on the struggle that smaller grassroots movements and their byproducts face when pushed into the mainstream — especially by celebrities. 

Our favorite artists are not always well-versed on policy and community organizing efforts. They may not understand the nuances of grassroots movements and only have a general understanding and appreciation for activist groups and organizers who gain widespread attention — like Shaun King.

As celebrity culture becomes more intertwined with activism and political movements, we must be more cognizant of the way those joint efforts emulate the key aspect of celebrity culture: fame. 

But Rihanna and CLF likely chose Shaun King because of his visibility, viral tweets and celebrity, not based on his actual impact and relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Rihanna isn’t the only celebrity who’s made missteps in their choices as powerful figures in society.  Jay-Z’s Roc Nation established an entertainment collaboration with the NFL earlier this year, sans involvement from Colin Kaepernick. Jay-Z was criticized because the NFL shunned Kaepernick  after he took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice. 

The Carolina Panthers’ Eric Reid, who routinely kneels for the anthem, criticized the rapper for claiming “we’ve moved past kneeling” when referring to action items aimed at addressing and protesting the racial and social injustices. 

“For one, when has Jay-Z ever taken a knee?” Reid said. 

Reid’s comments highlight how out of touch celebrities can be with the work, consequence and nuance of grassroots movements. 

It’s not that Jay-Z and Roc Nation were ill-intentioned, nor do I fully question the commitment they have to the issues they champion. But they failed to apply the same attention to detail and apparent integrity into social justice-based ventures that they do with their music, fashion, liquor and other enterprises. When our “faves” fail to do their due diligence in their efforts, they are complicit in a world that overshadows, ignores and co-opts the work of grassroots movements and organizers. 

In a perfect world, when the Roc Nation and the NFL partnership is actualized, it’ll be done in a way that addresses the league’s silencing of Kaepernick and honors the work he’s done off the field. Hopefully, Rihanna or the Clara Lionel Foundation will publicly address the backlash regarding King. 

Hopefully she chooses to remove him as an honoree and express her support for both black women and accountability. 

Ellice Ellis is a senior writing about the music industry and social justice. Her column, “Everything but the Song,” runs every other Tuesday.