Is Jay Z’s Presence Charity Enough?

August 1st, 2013

(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

By: Jake Rohn

An ongoing war of words has pitted legendary singer and philanthropist Harry Belafonte squarely against rapper/sports agent Jay Z. Belafonte name-checked Jay Z (real name, Shawn Carter) and his wife, Beyoncé, last year saying, “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their backs on social responsibility. That goes for Jay Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is Black.”

For Jay Z’s part, he admitted during a recent sit-down interview with Elliot Wilson, to being offended by the manner in which Belafonte called him out in the national media, while, at the same time, giving props to Bruce Springsteen. Jay also added, “My presence is charity,” comparing the power of his attendance to that of President Obama.

The 86-year-old singer/actor contends that he did not mean for the statement to be received as a personal attack, but rather a call to action. Earlier this week Belafonte extended an olive branch to the Magna Carta Holy Grail rapper, requesting a sit-down to figure out how they could help — as Belafonte himself put it — “bring consciousness to the antiquities that (Black America) faces.”

Which one holds more intrinsic and long-term value, Jay Z’s time and attention or his money?

It should first be established that Belafonte’s claims aren’t without merit. In 2010, according to tax records, Jay Z raked in approximately $63 million, of which he only gave $6,341 (.01 percent of his earnings) to charity, while Beyoncé did not donate one cent of her $87 million dollar earnings that she brought in that same year. Jay’s publicist did not dispute the numbers but, like Mr. Carter himself, insisted that contributions came in other forms for the rap megastar, such as a benefit concert he put on that same year that raised over $1 million (1.6 percent of his earnings) for charity.

Last week Jay and Bey showed just how powerful their presence is when they joined Al Sharpton and Trayvon Martin’s family at a rally in New York City protesting Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Though there was no monetary gain as a result of that protest, the goal of drawing attention to the controversial law, which has allowed people like George Zimmerman to avert justice, was accomplished. Media outlets across the globe covered the rally and Jay Z and Beyoncé helped make it the most significant protest in the country.

Another pertinent question to ask is whether or not Jay Z underwent a paradigm shift. While Jay seems to be downplaying his charitable efforts in a humble type of way in recent years, in 2003 he was boasting his charitable givings in songs like “Blueprint 2″ where he proudly proclaimed, “I put dollars on mine, ask Columbine, when the Twin Towers dropped, I was the first in line donating proceeds off every ticket sold when I was out on the road, that’s how you judge Hov, no?” He continued, “Ain’t I supposed to be absorbed with myself? Every time there’s a tragedy, I’m the first one to help.” What happened to THAT Hov? As a fan it’s painful to point out, but saying things like “My presence is charity,” in lieu of actually giving money is considered by many to be absorbed with yourself.

In a recent call for action, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (who themselves have given over $45 billion to charity) are trying to persuade fellow billionaires to pledge 90 percent of their earnings to charity before they die. Jay (who is valued at right around a half-a-billion) doesn’t have to give quite that much, but there is quite a disparity between 1.5 percent and 90 percent.

Whether or not he chooses to meet with Harry Belafonte, Jay Z DOES need to give more money, but not just because of what his dollars will do. As the pre-eminent trendsetter in hip hop, young rappers idolize him the way high school basketball stars look up to Michael Jordan. What he does echoes and leaves a mark that will resonate with the next generation, and if he does not give, then he is signing off on others’ not giving. When he says his presence is charity, young celebrities will be more inclined to believe their own hype. But when he does give, then he ignites hip hop’s “gift and curse,” which is its competitive spirit. In a culture where everyone wants to outspend and outshine the next person, Hov has the power to make people want to “outgive” each other, and while he’s made history a thousand times over, this could very well determine how history remembers the great and powerful Jay Z.

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