Magazine article The Fader

How Social Justice Became Cool: A New World of Social Consciousness Has Opened Up between the Public and Even the Poppiest of Stars, and Many Are Cashing In

Magazine article The Fader

How Social Justice Became Cool: A New World of Social Consciousness Has Opened Up between the Public and Even the Poppiest of Stars, and Many Are Cashing In

Article excerpt

In October, Usher released a single called "Chains." It was accompanied by a browser-based interactive video created in collaboration with the artist Daniel Arsham, hosted by TIDAL, and promoted under the hashtag #DontLookAway. Like the song's lyrics, the visual implores the viewer to acknowledge a few of the black men and women killed or otherwise targeted for their race in recent years; the viewer must lock eyes with black and white photos of the deceased to unlock the track. If you avert your gaze at any point or lean too deeply out of the view of your computer, the webcam-enabled technology pauses and begs you not to look away. "While racial injustice keeps killing, society keeps looking away," an introductory title screen reads.

The first time I watched it, I lasted just two dead faces. When I felt uncomfortable, I closed the tab, a privilege admittedly reserved for the living. On the morning of the video's release, I had a short conversation with a co-worker about the unlikeliness of Usher releasing such a politically motivated piece of art. Over his impressive, damn-near unprecedented two-decade-long career, Usher has been known for many things--a strong voice, phenomenal dancing, symmetrical dimples--but his political messages have largely been restricted to social media, occasional press interactions, and, presumably, his personal life. This song marked new territory for him, hinting at an attempt to, at best, use his influence for good or, at worst, take advantage of a new relationship between celebrities and the public that expects, or demands, social consciousness from even its poppiest of stars.

Given the current sociopolitical climate--where #BlackLivesMatters activists have been able to jostle presidential candidates to the left on race, and where corporations are increasingly fearful of being considered offensive on social media--it stands to follow that Usher was neither the first nor will he be the last to incorporate politics into his consumer-facing work. Earlier in the summer, Janelle Monae's Wondaland camp, including Jidenna, Deep Cotton, and the band St. Beauty, dropped "Hell You Talmbout (Say Their Names)." It's a protest song in the most literal sense possible. Over chanting drums, it calls out the names of victims of police or vigilante murder in remembrance, and was rolled out with a series of protests around the country led by the crew. They were alternately lauded and mocked; some internet commenters, myself included, called bullshit on the move. Not because it was difficult to believe their concern about racial justice in America, but because it read like a marketing meeting-hatched rollout wherein they wore social justice like a costume.

Wondaland's intentions aside, the moment felt like the inevitable culmination of the newfound cool of social justice, a shift that has made it a marker of social capital, a performative way to make yourself desirable, whether as a brand or simply a person. Social justice issues are becoming widely understood; there is a political vocabulary that is infinitely more common now than it was even a couple of years ago. Language to describe the minutiae of racism, cultural appropriation, and rape culture has seeped from academia into the mainstream lexicon as a way of dissecting and, in theory, resolving social issues involving race, gender, sexuality, and more.

Writing in The Nation in 2014, Mychal Denzel Smith argued that the killing of Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, and the lack of justice that followed, sparked a change in the consciousness of black people. "Trayvon's death ignited something durable in a considerable number of black youth. Whatever apathy had existed before was replaced by the urge to act, to organize and to fight," he wrote, pointing to a rise in youth activists and the establishment of more action-oriented organizing.

But if Trayvon Martin birthed a new generation of activists, the killing of Mike Brown two-and-a-half years later by a police officer gave rise to a new framework of politics for the contemporary era. …

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