No matter the infraction, great or small, one thing we can rely on is that today’s celebrities are in a lose/lose situation when attempting to express solidarity with a cause.
In the wake of the national tragedy of the George Floyd murder at the hands of four white Minneapolis police officers, many pubic figures have taken to social media to share the same anger and outrage expressed by everyday people across the country. From somber, sad songs of Nina Simone and lyrics of negro spirituals, to passages of oppression and guttural angst from James Baldwin and poems by Maya Angelou, there is no shortage of people using art as a vessel for coping with this pain.
Yesterday a proud mother of a beautiful young black son recorded a few seconds of the young man dancing in their home to the Michael Jackson song, They don’t really care about us. She posted it on social media with a heartfelt message against racial injustice, and for racial equality. It was meant to be a tribute to George Floyd but she was met with scorn, most notably from “Black Twitter.”
For context, They don’t really care about us is a protest song that Jackson recorded to focus on how poor minorities of the world are the often forgotten ones of the global economy and often the victims of racial injustice. Among the most persuasive examples of that economic assessment would be in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where nearly 26% live in areas of poverty known as favelas.
They are mostly all black in the favelas though there are exceptions. In these villages, though with minimal material things, you will find some of the warmest, kindest people who would gladly offer you a warm meal in their small shack-like home, if they could only spare it. In contrast, yes, there is a notorious crime aspect there too that makes these areas quite dangerous for tourists.
Jackson purposefully shot the video for his song in the favelas of Rio and the Afro-cultured city of Salvador. As he sang through the streets, Jackson featured many beautiful wide-eyed “street kids” and the Brazilian drumming group Olodum dancing along side of him. It was a statement against injustice.
So given that background of the song, back to the young black man who danced to it in tribute to George Floyd, as his proud mother watched, recorded and shared it with the world. The young man dancing is David Banda, and his proud mother is Madonna, who adopted him as a young child from an impoverished village of Malawi, in Africa. Along with the video, she wrote the following caption:
“Brutal murder travels around the world my son David Dances to honor and pay tribute to George and His Family and all Acts of Racism and Discrimination that happen on a daily basis in America. #davidbanda #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd #MichaelJackson.”
Immediately Madonna received backlash for the video from a black female Twitter user named April Reign. Reign is the social media phenomenon who created the juggernaut hashtag #oscarsowhite. In response to Madonna’s post, she wrote:
“Nobody asked Madonna to weigh in today. Not a soul. Unforced errors among public figures have been rampant this month,”
CNN reported the Madonna backlash, which included Reign’s comment and those mocking the pop icon. TV writer Akilah Green tweeted Banda’s dancing tribute video was “worse than that Pepsi can,” referring to an infamous 2017 commercial starring Kendall Jenner that used protest imagery to market the soft drink. Several other commenters jokingly thanked Madonna for “ending racism.”
My perspective as an African American man who has experienced unsettling encounters with white officers of the law, is I’m afraid I have to disagree with April Reign and her fellow Madonna-detractors.
Earlier, I referenced art as a universal expression to process and cope with pain and the George Floyd tragedy is no exception. Dance is interpretive and deliberate. Alvin Ailey’s entire purpose, for example, was to use modern dance as an interpretive catalyst for change and the journey of equality we continue to face. How is Banda’s dance then dismissed?
As I have laid out, They don’t really care about us, is wholly a relevant song for the moment and the cause, even if one could argue perhaps that Michael Jackson’s dance steps are synonymous with celebration as opposed to memorial sentiment, and therefore inappropriate in this context. To that, I say, art is subjective, so who is to say what the emotive intent behind Banda’s performance was? To him, it was a tribute, and that is how Madonna shared it.
We are in a digital age and era of the ‘cancel culture,’ where internet mobs admonish people who meant no harm, are chase them off the social media ‘bell tower’ comparable to townies with their glowing torches in the night persuing the misunderstood Frankenstein.
I get it. Madonna is an easy target; she is wealthy, and white at a time of deep harbored resentment against white people by many African Americans. Even her adoption of black kids in general, angered some black people, many accusing her of sensationalizing the “acquiring” of black babies and a commodity or for publicity.
However, that is a gross mischaracterization for a woman who has a long history of activism for minorities and the LGBT community that dates back to the start of her career in the early 80s’ when such positions could ostracize performers.
The truth of the matter is there is an alarming disparity in the number of black kids’ adopted as opposed to white kids, and add to the mix, foreign kids from Africa, and the gap widens further. Madonna adopted four children from African villages, giving them lives of security, wealth, culture, and education, but all the while keeping them connected to their blood families in Africa. She took millions of her money to then invest in the African communities where her children were born to provide the inhabitants there with better lives and educational possibilities where there were none. In addition, she donates and raises money, millions of dollars toward resources for African Americans, and other minorities here in the United States as well.
So, I implore my fellow African Americans to know the difference between white racists who would crush your trachea murderously with a knee to the neck, and the white allies, who yes, may make a misstep here and there in their efforts to show their allegiance with African Americans, but clearly have good intentions.
We cannot say we want white people to understand our plight, stand with us, and speak up against the brutality – but then shut them down when they make an attempt.
African Americans often speak about “the talk” our mothers give to their black sons about how to survive an encounter with the police. And to April Reign and others mocking Madonna, whether you like it or not, Madonna is also the mother of a black son with all the pride, and promise of any other.
Like every mother with black sons and daughters who is outraged, afraid, and disgusted by the injustices of systemic racism, Madonna has every right to express her feelings, in her own way, in solidarity with the cause. To mock and stifle her is nasty, and self-defeatist at a most volatile time in history where we can no longer afford to eat our allies.
Read the full story of the misdirected Madonna backlash here at CNN
This piece is an opinion piece by one Contributing Writer for Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of the magazine or other Contributing Writers.