Justin Timberlake & the Black Lives Matter Movement

Credit: digitalspy.com

Before self-identifying social justice warriors on the internet attack me from their computer chairs, I want to start off by saying that although I am not African-American, I am a woman of Dominican descent who can trace her ancestry back to both Africa and Spain. I have African ancestors. I have Spanish ancestors. And I also have indigenous ancestry running through my straight, dark black hair and curvaceous body.

Neighboring my native land, the Dominican Republic, is Haiti, whose “Revolution has often been described as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere.” I have seen and heard Dominicans calling Haitians demeaning names because of how dark they are. But this means that I was born into, and am still living in, a post-revolutionary existence. I am not an All Lives Matter supporter, because I am well-aware of how discrimination plays out differently for people who look like me vs. those who look like Justin Timberlake. I am not blind to issues that affect black and brown people—I have lived those issues just as much as any other black or brown student at Amherst College.

I grew up in New York City and once lived in the ghettos of Brooklyn, ladies and gentlemen, where my family and I have been chased out for not being black enough. But I am also not anti-black. Nor am I a black supremacist, or any other kind of supremacist for that matter. I fell in love with Malcolm X’s ideologies as soon as I first picked up his autobiography my freshman year in college and found myself teaching it to high school students in a summer college prep program where I was interning. I became radicalized because of a black man who experienced the brunt of racism and misplaced hatred more intensely than any of us ever have today.

I have also lived in Nicaragua and the island of Cuba, where Assata Shakur, former Black Panther activist, spends her days running from “U.S. justice,” namely the New Jersey Police Department. I was further radicalized after this trip, naturally. I consider myself a socialist now, living in a capitalist society, which makes my grievances with law and order heavier to carry.

For those of you who know me very well, I listen to rap and hip hop music religiously because of the streets I know. Home of Biggie (also known as the Notorious BIG), Brooklyn made me the hip hop enthusiast I am today, with an eye for old school rhythms and revolutionary lyrics preached by Brothers Immortal Technique and Kendrick Lamar.

Some say that I am black, or pretend to be, because of the subtle Brooklyn twang in my speech. Or because I merely listen to hip hop music. Others say I am brown, falsely claiming the 1960s Chicano Movement as my own because I love Gloria Anzaldúa and indulge in the military history of the Aztec tribe too much. And there are still others who swear that I am white because of my lighter skin, so that I can effectively use my white privilege to effortlessly float between different circles.

However, their categorizations fall upon my deaf ears, because I am a Latina, Dominican American and brown woman. I’m mixed, and anyone who tells me otherwise will have to cite historical primary and secondary sources on the history of the world. Good luck—I’ve tried.

So, now that I’ve rightfully (and hopefully) explained my entire racial, ethnic, ideological and spiritual background, since not doing so would mean I have no right to speak on my own truth, I would like to call attention to where there are missed opportunities suddenly popping up in the Black Lives Matter movement. I am also a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, just so that I don’t receive unfounded criticism from activists on the ground who think I have no right to critique a movement that actually affects and includes me.

I refuse to participate in “oppression Olympics” that destroy our social movements now resurrected from the civil rights era. The recent Democratic sit-in led by Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and John Larson (D-Conn.) is a strong reminder of that momentum gaining ground in Washington, one that makes the hairs on my arms stand as I recount the six-seven hours I spent that night, glued to my computer screen hoping for a confrontation between the Dems and the Republicans over gun control reform.

I argue that opportunities to stand in solidarity with folks, such as white celebrities who may actually be on our side, are regularly dismissed. This is not to say that in my ignorance, post-Amherst Uprising, I did not brush off conversations with my white peers who wanted to understand how they could help. Of course I brushed them all off and looked inward and away from other groups and individuals who I thought could never be in solidarity with my revolutionary beliefs. And who I also thought had willingly allowed the college’s administration to effectively co-op that sit-in and its aftermath. Why? Because it is easier that way. Talking across cultural, religious, racial ethnic, political and socioeconomic differences is difficult, no matter if there are good intentions on either side. It would be hypocritical of me to mention otherwise.

The example of missed opportunities presents itself in the controversy surrounding Justin Timberlake right now. Mr. Timberlake was roasted on Twitter for stating that he was inspired by Jesse Williams’ phenomenal speech at the BET Music Awards after he received the Humanitarian Award. If you haven’t watched Mr. Williams’ speech, please do so now. I don’t even watch the BET Music Awards anymore, but I knew how mesmerizing the speech was because it kept emerging in all my newsfeeds this week.

I believe Mr. Timberlake simply called attention to how inspiring Mr. Williams’ speech was because it touched upon social issues that we, as an entire society, are currently grappling with and poorly addressing. Police brutality, internet activism, the shortcomings of the U.S. government, racism, discrimination, hatred, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, the cultural appropriation of hip hop music and black artists, complacency and even the subtle politics of “cooning” were evoked in his beautiful speech. It was only five minutes long, but it felt much longer.

Not long after, Justin Timberlake, as anyone would, responded to angry Twitter users: “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.” All hell broke loose among those advocating for greater equality and understanding in U.S. society. Accusations of appropriating black music and culture, and even the Janet Jackson nipple, Super Bowl incident were used to question Timberlake’s legitimacy as a talented and opinionated artist. But why?

I am less concerned with the phrases that were thrown about on Twitter or Timberlake’s immediate apology to the black community than I am with the following question: Today, in 2016, who has a stake in the civil rights and racism conversation? Me? You? Justin Timberlake? President Obama? Donald Trump? Who are we to judge who has the right to comment on something even tangentially related to the state of our racist country at this present moment? Do you or I know Justin Timberlake’s past, his political beliefs, and why he felt the need to publicly share his feelings of praise for Mr. Williams?

Most importantly, expressing someone’s purported racism and insensitivity over social media won’t “educate” your oppressor and reverse centuries of systemic and structural inequalities. Why is it this so difficult to understand?

Let us also not forget that aside from being the incredibly, talented artist he is, Justin Timberlake has produced countless hit songs with Timbaland for more than fifteen years. Timbaland also happens to be a black, and equally talented music artist. Timbaland has also worked with some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen, namely Aaliyah, Missy Elliot, Cher, Dr. Dre, Wyclef Jean, Jay Z and many others.

Justin Timberlake, a celebrity who maintains nowhere near as ubiquitous a presence as the Kardashian family on social media, was targeted, quite frankly, because he is white and has produced music with black artists. Therefore, the logic apparently follows that because the music he produces is black and he is white, he is copying and appropriating a music genre that isn’t his. Moreover, we then feel the need to place him in the same category as Iggy Azalea or Riff Raff, who disgustingly make fun of hip hop and rap music, while also making total fools of themselves in the process. Finally, according to these arguments, as a white man, Justin Timberlake does not, and will never, have the right to comment on a speech that was presumably meant to be heard by all those seated in attendance for the BET Music Awards.

Mr. Timberlake, a white man from Tennessee and former member of N’Sync, is not allowed by black and brown people, like me and you, to participate in race conversations, or merely praise and acknowledge commentary made by us, because again, he is white. This is the state of race relations in 2016, today. Sound awfully familiar, right? Like a cycle, perhaps?

Charlamagne, tha God, known by many as the funny King of Roasting and for calling celebrities out without any filters, shamelessly came to the defense of Timberlake. Charlamagne is also a black man who has been accused of being a “coon” even though he has shown ample support for the community he belongs to, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Where does it stop? What do we want? I use “we” to refer to you, the reader, regardless of your race or ethnicity. Where will the exclusivity stop and the inclusivity begin? We talk about college campuses as now having to create safe spaces and use politically correct language in order to not trigger its students, faculty and staff. I understand this has its advantages, particularly for students who have been victims of sexual assault or any form of violence like myself.

Yet, the aforementioned Timberlake debacle demonstrates one ugly truth: We are living in a police state that is becoming increasingly, and dangerously, militarized. Politics of respectability or politically-correct language has created far more divisions than it has cohesion. People are literally afraid to speak out on matters they feel even one emotion about because of the human policing that occurs on social media, internet chatrooms, workplaces, academic classrooms, counseling offices and even family homes. We are living in a militarized police state, similar to the one evoked in George Orwell’s 1984. Think about the ramifications of such a state in an era where every imaginable “ism” is now under scrutiny more than ever before.

Delving into the historical implications of such a state are beyond the scope of this article, however. I will not touch upon this issue. Neither will I further explain that politically correct language can be useful when it generates productive dialogue and does not silence those with viewpoints that may not be so mainstream. Those on the left, like myself, already know this. Ultimately, I conclude that social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, will eventually fail if they recycle the very same hatred they are trying to eradicate. Hate cannot meet hate and create peace—simple.

How are we using tools to dismantle systems of oppression that have also been used to prop them right back up? Allies, particularly white allies who are well-meaning and express the desire to learn and collaborate in la lucha, or the fight, for an equal society, are just that—our allies—and they don’t even have to be our best friends. Allies are important for building political coalitions that extend far beyond our skin, hair and eye colors.

Stop the “computer thugging” and the hawkish forms of “political correctness.”
Stop the labeling. Stop the historical debates around who is more or less oppressed. Stop the bullying.
Stop the anger.
Stop the hate.
Stop the hypocrisy and the preaching of being holier than thou.
Stop the attacks.
There are larger issues in the world that need attending to, immediately.

Instead, consider protesting and risking imprisonment or social ostracization, running for government office on either a local or national level, put pressure on your elected officials to make greater and fairer leaps in policy and the administration of justice, educate your children and yourself by reading about your country’s history and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, stand in solidarity with disenfranchised communities that need help providing social services to its residents and join an organization like the YMCA to do something about it, volunteer in your own community, sit down and have a conversation with someone who holds strikingly different beliefs from your own, or do whatever the fuck you can to make someone else’s life better.

Bob Marley once said to “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” This war against humanity isn’t going to stop or come to a peaceful ceasefire on its own, my friends.