Meltdown May passed us in name, but fear not: June brought a new cavalcade of embarrassing public spectacles for once-beloved public figures. But while JK Rowling burnt the rest of her goodwill away by tripling down on her transphobia, another man sought to co-opt the clout of the recent Black Lives Matter unrest to tarnish his reputation even further. That man happens to be Ice Cube, notorious rapper and kids’ movie actor. Ice Cube has never been a stranger to controversy in his rap career (in many cases for good), but lapsed into embarrassment during a moment where he couldn’t seem to put down his phone. Some of the stuff coming out of his feed was just kind of ridiculous: foot fetish content disguised as Black Israelite imagery, claims that Olmec stone heads labeled “Olmec Statue” originate from Ethiopia, false claims that the Simpsons predicted Trump, and images of Trump in Joker paint (as well as some legitimately pointed political imagery, to be fair). The final nail in the coffin, however, came when Ice Cube cited an antisemitic (and frighteningly obtuse) simulation theory involving Zionist control of reality. The wounds are still fresh from the recent murders of George Floyd et al, and this provocation read as even more pathetic in that light.
Ice Cube isn’t the first public figure to use an activist pretense for grift or self-sabotage. Singer Erykah Badu disappointed many when she came out as an R. Kelly apologist, someone who had already attempted to co-opt black power imagery to defend against credible sexual assault and human trafficking allegations. The recent memory of many white celebrities not getting the hint from the ‘Imagine’ video and producing something even more embarrassing also illuminates a desire to suck up some of the movement’s oxygen. This isn’t just celebrities trying to performatively seize upon the movement’s popularity for woke points, either — it also has a lot to do with centrists trying to bend the movement towards them. This grift has even extended into the antiracism reading lists that are popular right now. Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, one of the most popular books among newly woke Twitter liberals, has used her clout to monetize diversity training (in deeply flawed models), something that’s bound to become an increasingly successful tactic in the near future. This isn’t so much a failing of the movement as much as an indication of the blatant cynicism of those who co-opt it for their own enrichment.
Likewise, it’s easy to form parasocial relationships with people who we perceive as activists. The Internet in late capitalism has erased many barriers between communication, which is undoubtedly a net good in countless social scenarios: There are examples, like rapper Noname’s online Book Club, of celebrities attempting to use their platforms to genuinely educate people. But for every one of these instances, there are several of public figures using their alignments for clout or worse. A good example of this cynical approach is writer Shaun King. King has often taken advantage of his position as a self-appointed leader of BLM to grift his way into a sea of consistently failing projects that have now jeopardized his goodwill with virtually all of his former allies. The most glaring example of this came with the collapse of his plan to rebuild Frederick Douglass’s North Star newspaper, which led to many funding concerns and outright lies about the treatment of employees. It’s now gotten so obvious that some of the biggest BLM advocacy networks have actively advised people not to donate to him.
Does that mean that there is no one in the movement to trust? Far from it. Across the country, BLM movements with boots on the ground have begun to form strong coalitions to bring home the goods. Using Detroit as an example, most of the actual work on the ground has been through organizations that organize over Facebook. Despite using an internet-based platform, it hasn’t devolved into performatism and has remained strictly rooted in the direct action that’s been going on in the street. It has leaders, but nothing close to self-declared ubermensch sucking away traffic from the core issues of the movement.
Dave Chappelle once struck a nerve by asking whether or not we really want to hear from Ja Rule in a time of crisis and unrest. In his recent YouTube special 8:46, he brought this back to specifically say that his voice does not matter in comparison to the masses in a world where every major city is in uproar. This isn’t to say that we should scorn solidarity from public figures – rather that we need to move beyond them. Whatever happens, in this movement or the next, it should happen with or without blue checks chiming in.
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