Social Awareness & Justice: Whose Responsibility Is It? — Bek Hirschmann

A look into celebrities’ platforms and their use of them for political influence.

Bek Hirschmann is a literature major with women’s and gender studies and philosophy minors at University of Detroit Mercy. Music has always been a staple in Bek’s life, whether it be music production, lyricism, or piano playing. If you can’t find them on campus, you’d be sure to run into them riding their bike all over the city. Bek plans to continue on their education and become a professor, hoping to live a life filled to the brim with good literature and good conversation.

Janelle Monae on a throne surrounded by people
Still from Janelle Monae’s music video “Django Jane”

What is politics? One may say that it is only what goes on in the political sphere, but the political world is not a separate entity that only affects those outside of it when it decides to. The world influences politics, and politics influence the world in an endless cycle. With this in mind, is it possible to be apolitical? If the answer is no, what responsibility do those who are held on a pedestal in public life, such as celebrities, have to make their political leanings known?

“Fans want the music, but they want a politician,” rapper Aminé states in his song “STFU.” In the last 10 years, there has been a push for celebrities to stand up publicly for certain causes. Before social media, celebrities released their work and said their piece; there was less involvement in their personal lives. Now, especially in 2020, there are multiple ways to interact with and seem like one knows their favorite celebrity. Being a fan is more than liking their art; it has to be liking the whole person. People have always made public their adoration of certain artists by going to their concerts, owning their product, or wearing their merchandise, but with social media, people also have accounts dedicated to their favorite celebrities. When one connects themselves to an artist in such a way, they feel as though they have to support everything the artist does or else they are cancelled.

Cancel Culture is not as new a phenomenon as people think, but the scope of it and its use in the public sphere has grown. An early wave of Cancel Culture started back on Tumblr in the early 2010s, bringing popularity to phrases such as “Social Justice Warrior” and “problematic.” As Tumblr lost its popularity as a platform, this sort of discourse died down as well; however, it was picked up again to new heights on Twitter.

One wrong word, one wrong move, one wrong post–you’re cancelled. A popular way for people spread the news that someone is now deemed problematic and is cancelled are hashtags such as “#(insert name here)isoverparty.” Just in the past two days, there have been three separate hashtags of this nature trending–one for Demi Lovato, one for Conan Gray, and one for Adam Driver. Each one was “cancelled” for a different reason, but each cancellation was for a singular event in the person’s life. Whether it was a decision made when they were young or one they thought was private does not matter. In Cancel Culture, there is no room for growth; once you are deemed problematic, it’s over.

“I think a lot of people in the public don’t speak out about things that they could well use their platform to speak out with. They’re afraid of sticking their neck out because if you do, your head gets chopped off.”

– Jameel Jamil, US Weekly, 2019

Knowing this is the climate of celebrity culture, musicians have to make a choice–make their political stances known or stay silent. There can be no middle ground. If one only shares some beliefs, people accuse them of not caring, or even helping worsen, other social issues. Staying silent does not always mean an artist is free of criticism either. If an artist does not continually speak out on certain issues, no matter what their ideologies are or what they do in private to help, they are also deemed problematic by not using their social status in the way they should. Two artists that we will take a closer look at that each take a side of this coin are Janelle Monae and Harry Styles.

Janelle Monae has been known to be public and honest about the issues she supports and the causes she fights for. Her latest album Dirty Computer (released 2018) is overtly and purposely political. In her song “Screwed,” Janelle sings, “And I hear the sirens calling, and the bombs are falling in the streets. We’re all screwed.” She is clearly commenting on the state of the world and placing herself in the narrative by the use of the word “we.” As well, in her song “Django Jane,” Monae sings, “Black girl magic; ya’ll can’t stand it. Ya’ll can’t ban it, made out like a bandit. They been trying hard just to make us all vanish.” Once again, Monae is making a comment on the world that is going on around her but also on her own personal experience; she is unable to separate the two. As a queer black woman, Janelle does not necessarily have the ability to not pay attention to certain issues. There is constant legislation and fights for women’s rights and LGBT+ rights. To ignore these issues would be ignoring herself. As a member of a higher tax bracket, however, Monae still has more privilege than others in the world, which is why she feels even more compelled to share her beliefs.

“I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you. This album is for you. Be proud.”

– Janelle Monae, Rolling Stone 2018

Harry Styles, on the other hand, is very quiet about what he stands for, but he is not necessarily silent. There have been multiple times that he has privately donated money to charities, released merchandise where 100% of the profits go to help certain causes, and spoken out at his concerts about being yourself and acceptance. However, these are all things that if you are not a close follower of Harry Styles, you would never know. He goes on social media rarely, and when he does, it is to share a few short sentences, and then he disappears again. When asked in a recent interview with The Guardian why he doesn’t speak out more, he responded,

“Because of dilution. Because I’d prefer, when I say something, for people to think I mean it. To be honest, I’m still searching for that one thing, y’know. Something I can really stand up for, and get behind, and be like: This Is My Life Fight. There’s a power to doing the one thing. You want your whole weight behind it.”

There is truth to what Styles is saying, and it is good to know he won’t stand up for causes just because he is expected to, but it must be acknowledged that his answer is being said from a place of privilege. Unlike Janelle Monae, Harry Styles is a rich, white man, meaning that if he wanted to ignore politics completely, there is a strong chance his life would go on unaffected. I will not claim to know what he believes or what he does not, but the ability to pick and choose is not a luxury everyone has.

Harry Styles in a blue velvet suit with a guitar
Harry Styles performing at Stevie Nick’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

What is the verdict? Should celebrities have to share all their beliefs to prove they care? Or, will we allow actions to speak louder than words? I wish I could give you an answer, but it will never be that simple. I do believe if you have a platform, it should be used somewhat to improve the society you’re living in, but the jury is still out on the best way to do so and to what extent. Should all your artistic endeavours and social media platforms be filled with moral and/or political messages? Or, is it enough to sprinkle it into a few songs, merchandise, and posts? There is no right or wrong answer, and we cannot control how others express their beliefs. All we can do is what we feel we must to make the world a better place to live in for everyone, not just ourselves.

A person standing in front of a body of water wearing a sweatshirt that says Teach me Empathy
The author

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