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Kingdom Come: Striking the Balance between Celebrities and Causes
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We live in a society where pop culture rules and celebrities are the royalty of our land. I suppose it should not come as a surprise to see that even global issues are migrating from the pages of Foreign Affairs to People. Artists and actors have emerged as spokespeople for some of the most pressing problems of our time, displacing the typical talking heads and pundits with the powerful glow of their celebrity. In the latest example, ABC News recently showcased Shawn “Jay-Z? Carter on Nightline and glorified him on a Barbara Walters specialty. Its not his new album that makes Jay-Z noteworthy, but his embrace of the global water crisis as his primary cause celebre.

Jay-Z truly is a phenomenon of our time. More than an ordinary musician, he has emerged as a serious corporate executive with wide-ranging commercial interests. From his position as CEO of Def Jam to his clothing empire to his equity stake in the New York Nets, Jay Z has a diverse and thriving business empire. His business acumen and marketing savvy are at least as remarkable as his musical abilities.

Thus, when Jay-Z approached outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Anan earlier this year and expressed an interest in leveraging his fame to assist with a major global challenge, it was a huge opportunity. Anan executed a coup to direct him toward water. The sector has never had the attention of a personality of such magnitude and star power. Many in the community were excited albeit anxious about what Jay-Z would accomplish.

Jay-Z completed a world tour this past summer, stopping in multiple spots in Asia and Africa. With the assistance of the United Nations Development Program, he augmented his itinerary with stops in rural and urban environments to observe the scarcity of clean water and sanitation services in these areas. MTV tagged along for these visits, recording his impressions for an MTV documentary. “Jay-Z: Water for Life? then was previewed last month at the United Nations headquarters in mid-town Manhattan before its debut on MTV2.

The screening itself was an arresting experience. There must have been 700-800 people in attendance for the invite-only event. Everyone could feel the energy pulsing through the room as people turned their heads seeking out a glimpse of Jay-Z and his large entourage. Suffice to say, it was an unusual moment. Almost no one in the sprawling UN bureaucracy can muster the kind of electricity that Jay-Z can generate simply by entering a room.

When the film began, the room fell silent. The crowd of entertainment executives, musicians, and school-age adolescents viewed images of the hip hop artist stepping over flowing rivers of raw sewage in a slum in Kenya and carrying a leaky five gallon canister of water back to a ramshackle shanty in Tanzania where it would serve an entire family. Jay-Z was visibly shaken, remarking that even his hard-knock origins in Brooklyn were luxurious when compared to the dire poverty gripping these people.

In a way, his sense of awe spoke for the entire audience. It seemed to be the first time that many of the assembled had seen the reality that confronts billions of people every day who struggle to survive without clean water.

The documentary now has aired on MTV and MTV2, timed to coincide with the release of Jay-Z’s new album, Kingdom Come. When viewers see the film, Shawn Carter’s moment of enlightenment is repeated again and again. As time wears on, more young people will watch the images and come to understand the horrendous conditions that Jay-Z beheld in Africa. But then we must ask the question – what comes next?

It should be noted that celebrity involvement on global issues is not a novel concept. The UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors program has been at this task for more than half a century. The program was founded to harness entertainers to advance its work to uplift children in need around the world. Yet the glorification of issues through celebrity engagement creates both opportunities and challenges.

It would be foolish to dispute the value of widening public engagement on pressing global issues that demand our attention. Celebrities attract the attention of those who otherwise might skip the world news sections of the local paper. Some might discount the impact of such engagement, but I think that their enfranchisement has enormous potential. As these otherwise uninvolved communities get inspired to take action, it might even be viewed as a healthy sign of democratization. But what are the broader implications when one person becomes a cause personified?

Performers such as Bono and George Clooney represent the best elements of the cadre of celebrity over-achievers. They have attained incredible professional success because of their remarkable talent and dedication to their craft but also have carved out important roles on the world stage as advocates for the fight against HIV/AIDS and Darfur respectively. We only can hope that their peers in Hollywood and other creative communities will follow their lead. It would be remarkable if every public figure leveraged their fame, not necessarily to pursue an overtly political agenda, but toward clear humanitarian causes that need the reach and scale that star power can deliver.

At the same time, we must resist the trend toward the over-simplification of these great problems. We need to ensure that new generations of young people who are enlightened on the issues also understand the tremendous complexity of these challenges. They must not be led to believe that activism ends at the cash register or remote control. Watching a Jay-Z interview on Nightline is a start, but little more than that. Gatorade has educated consumers to believe that you can be athletic by drinking a sports beverage, even if from a sedentary position on your couch. Our generation cannot afford this myth to be perpetuated in the context of the important global issues that lie ahead.

Celebrities and other public figures should utilize their bullet pulpits to educate the masses but also to explain that these efforts necessitate long-term thinking and innovative solutions. A commendable enterprise is THINK, a self-described community created by MTV but also supported by outside philanthropies. THINK essentially functions as a branded media platform that develops entertaining and educational content for MTV consumers. Interestingly, THINK also is developing a suite of online applications that will launch in 2007 and allow its users to translate their newfound interest into hands-on activism.

THINK stands in contrast to Project RED, a cause-marketing campaign whose ambition and scope I applauded in an earlier essay. Unfortunately, RED seems to have all but disappeared from the public agenda. I took a recent trip to the Gap to find myself overwhelmed by lots of hoods, but couldn’t find any of the nifty RED t-shirts.

I am optimistic that RED will burst out of the gates in 2007, but its lack of emphasis on consumer education and sole focus on product marketing creates an uncomfortable dependency on its corporate partners. No matter how noble the RED cause, the prototypical retailer always wants to launch new promotions and vary the product mix with each new season. I hope that consumers will demonstrate demand and ensure a constant presence for its products on shelves in GAP store, Motorola outlets, the iTunes site, and all other possible retail environments.

Along with RED, there are other models for long-term celebrity-driven engagement. DATA and The ONE campaign, two organizations launched in recent years by Bono, represent one such model. Their independent identities – discreet ventures with dedicated personnel, clear objectives, and specific programs – serve as an inspiration. DATA and ONE have the potential to outlast Bono if/when he should step back from his über-humanitarian role to resume a full-time focus on music or other pursuits.

Another approach has been pioneered by Global Green. The US arm of Green Cross International, Global Green recently partnered with Brad Pitt to launch a competition around on sustainable design and green building strategies related to the New Orleans redevelopment effort.

Global Green isn’t new to celebrity engagement – its the organization of choice for stars like Ed Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the most active members of the green set in Hollywood. Yet, its engagement with mega-star Pitt is a fascinating example that serves both parties. Pitt, who pals around with Frank Gehry, has combined his well-documented interest in architecture and design with the mission and strategy of an accomplished and astute global non-profit. Along with a financial contribution, Pitt has used the supernova of his celebrity to draw attention to Global Green and this extremely important field. Brad now can step back to collect his Oscar for Babel or to play father to Shiloh, but do so with the knowledge that he has electrified an existing entity and created a platform for long-term change. This is a meaningful achievement that should last well beyond the flash of the paparazzi.

Unfortunately, not every artist has the allure of Bono or Brad Pitt. The aforementioned non-profits sit off the mainstream curve and do not (yet) appear evidentiary of a material trend. Nonetheless, it is high time for other celebrities to follow their lead.

Stars that want to drive social change would be wise to spend less time worrying about jaunts to Africa or ET interviews. Instead, they should utilize their fame here and now to explode the cult of celebrity and create cults of sustainability. Deep collaborations with existing organizations (like Global Green) or the launch of new institutions (like the DATA and ONE) ensure that their passions enjoy a platform when the fickle tastes of public opinion inevitably shift. Along the way, they might just accomplish some good.

This is not some far fetched idea. Individuals like Brad Pitt and Jay-Z are not simply artists, they truly are entrepreneurs. These are mavericks that have scaled artistic and commercial heights, not only due to their talent, but through their relentless dedication, extraordinary preparation, uncanny intuition and logic-defying optimism. Interestingly, if you were to describe this personality profile to a venture partner at Kleiner or Sequoia, he or she might think you were describing a Web 2.0 pioneer or a character out of a Harvard Business School case rather than a fleeting phenom of the pop charts.

I hope that Jay-Z will apply the capitalist ingenuity that has hallmarked his professional career toward the world water crisis – the billions of people who suffer from water scarcity need his creativity and drive. When an artist channels his intensity and passion both to boost awareness and to build capacity, the odds improve that we will see the emergence of innovative approaches and sustainable systems that produce long-range benefits for all. But when a celebrity fails to rise to this challenge, his impact seems bound to resemble little more than a one-hit wonder destined to fade to black.

[Image: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, flanked by MTV President Christina Norman (right) and Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, hip hop artist and president and CEO of Def Jam Records. (photo source: UN)]

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Comments

A great call to action, as well as a call to caution. Thanks for the insights.

(For a tiny Canadian response to, and criticism of (Product)RED, you can check out the little thing we call (Red)emption.)


Posted by: Mike Todd on 21 Dec 06

From idUnited blog >

Jay-z is doing an amazing job getting the word out about the worlds water crisis. We covered his “H 2 the izzO? charity concert last week. Since then I’ve seen him on MTV “Diary of Jay-Z > Water For Life? (see a clip below) He was on Nightline last night and now there’s even a shoe! No it’s not the S. Carters,.. they’re the latest creation of JG Customs: Nike Air Force 1 “Water For Life?

For more info please visit www.idUnited.com


Posted by: _N on 24 Dec 06

do y'all know ecorazzi, the latest in green gossip. people actually blog about this stuff on a daily basis.


Posted by: anonymous on 27 Dec 06

This is a great piece. I really like the idea that celebrities like Jay-Z, like many of the tech entrepreneurs from the dot.com boom who have gotten involved in philanthropy, can do more than bring their fame and fortune to pressing global problems. They can actually bring their acumen and entrepreneurial creativity. The question - what can Jay-Z do as a savvy entreprenuer - is the right one. We are firm believers that entrepreneurship, and not charity, will help change the course of global inequality.


Posted by: Yasmina Zaidman on 29 Dec 06

"Brad Pitt and Jay-Z are not simply artists, they truly are entrepreneurs. These are mavericks that have scaled artistic and commercial heights, not only due to their talent, but through their relentless dedication, extraordinary preparation, uncanny intuition and logic-defying optimism."

As much as I admire their God-like powers, I think that when you have horded as much of the worlds wealth as these two, the absolute least you can do is to give some back. I feel less like applauding those who do lend their support to worthy causes than shifting those who dont to the darkest, most underprivileged corners of the world and rub some first hand exposure in their faces.
(but I admit that this approach is much less likely to win these causes new celebrity supporters)


Posted by: Ragnar on 3 Jan 07

really great article! this is a topic that has long been on my mind, yet i could never fully articulate how i felt about it. this article does just that. i love you, worldchanging. yes... i love you.


Posted by: jason on 3 Jan 07



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