In May, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Lovine each gave $35 million to the University of Southern California to build a Jimmy Lovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. Shortly afterwards, making the argument that USC enrolls only 5% black students, Dillard University president Walter Kimbrough asked why Dr. Dre would give money to a university with a $3.5-billion endowment instead of to a historically Black college where the money is needed.
Without diminishing the importance of this great act of generosity—which has Dr. Dre making one of the largest gifts by a Black person to a university—he argued that Dre has made his money from Black culture and a Black economy, and his money should have gone to the people who have made his career possible.
I thought this was an important intervention, because it gives us occasion to debate important questions around Black celebrities and philanthropy. What is the responsibility of the Black celebrity to the Black community? And what is the nature of Black celebrity philanthropy? I argue that there are three different kinds at a minimum: radical Black philanthropy, conservative Black philanthropy and, somewhere in between, name-brand philanthropy.
Radical Black philanthropists recognize that some social problems, racialized poverty for example, require social change too. For them, it’s not just a question of throwing money at the problem or lending their name to a cause. For them, social justice is a life-long commitment that requires a political understanding of society.
Take Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte, two Hollywood figures that trace their political activism from Civil Rights and anti-apartheid to global justice movements. Glover, for instance, is the board chair of TransAfrica, an organization that focuses “on U.S. economic and humanitarian aid to Africans and African descendants throughout the world” and seeks to bring “a critical perspective to foreign policy decision makers and works for more just policies for the African World.” In this Paul Robeson tradition, the artist has a duty to change society.
To understand conservative Black philanthropy, compare African-American sports heroes Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Recognizing that paradox of fighting in the Vietnam War in the name of a democracy that didn’t exist for Blacks, Ali refused to be conscripted. And for that he spent three years in jail putting his life and career on hold for his beliefs.
Michael Jordan, on the other hand, when asked to endorse a Black progressive candidate over the late racist Jesse Helms explained his apolitical nature by proclaiming that “republicans wear sneakers too.” In other words, for him business trumped social justice. Conservative Black celebrity philanthropists refuse to address the major political questions of the day, whether it’s the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or racial and class questions at home.
Somewhere in between, we find the name-brand powered Black celebrity philanthropists such as Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z and Beyoncé. They do good solid work, but because larger social and political issues don’t inform that work, their philanthropy is often contradictory in nature. In his op-ed, Walter Kimbrough pointed out that “given USC’s $45,602 tuition next year… Dre could have sponsored multiple full-ride scholarships to private Black colleges for the cost of one at USC.” This is my feeling about Oprah’s $40 million high school in South Africa. Instead of the one school, she could have built 40 schools.
But more than that, when in an interview Oprah was asked why she didn’t build the school in an African-American community, she answered: “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers… In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.” Helping South African kids surely does not require the denigration of Black American children or vice versa. It’s this lack of political understanding that led Belafonte last year to say that Jay-Z and Beyoncé “have turned their back on social responsibility” (to which Beyoncé responded by giving a list of her brand-name powered philanthropic acts).
That said, I for one would not argue that they’re doing any harm—to the contrary, they’re helping hundreds of students with their gifts. But I do think there needs to be a conversation about the various kinds of Black philanthropy. It would make for world-changing philanthropy if Black celebrity philanthropists worked within a broad consensus that understands the ultimate goal is to make the need for philanthropy a thing of the past.
There needs to be a tent for Black philanthropy large enough to house different approaches, with the goal of not only helping individuals in need, but at the same time challenging the conditions that produce and keep reproducing inequalities. Ali, Belafonte and Glover, who give their names and money while spearheading social justice causes, understand this—and Dr. Dre, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé and others have something to learn from them.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi. You can follow him on Twitter @mukomawangugi, and visit MukomaWaNgugi.com.