In the 1996 track "Can't Knock The Hustle," Jay-Z rapped “all us Blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even.”
Nearly 25 years later, Black athletes and entertainers have been working to make things even for Black folks this election and beyond. The moves made by Black sports and entertainment figures to empower black voters and reform the criminal justice system may even tip the scales in this year's presidential election.
But activism within sports is nothing new. At the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos iconically raised Black power fists. Six years ago, LeBron James and other NBA superstars like Derrick Rose and the late Kobe Bryant were met with indifference from the league for wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts to protest the lack of charges against the cop who killed Eric Garner. And more recently, in 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem.
Black celebrities have long been bringing issues to matters of racial injustice. But this year, Black athletes, actors and musicians have gone beyond awareness and have been spearheading specific efforts that tackle systemic racism in policing and inequalities in voting head-on. Here are 10 ways sports stars, musicians and other celebrities are impacting politics, Black voter turnout and criminal justice reform this year.
1. More than a Vote works to increase Black turnout and re-enfranchisement
In June, LeBron James and other athletes were moved to action by George Floyd's killing and launched the nonprofit organization More Than a Vote. The org, to which singer Toni Braxton, WNBA star Brittney Griner, comedian Kevin Hart and NFL player Patrick Mahomes belong, works to promote Black voting, conducting voter education and fighting voter suppression.
As Blavity previously reported, More Than a Vote has recruited 10,000 volunteers to work the election. The organization has partnered with the Live Nation to convert many of the company’s 100-plus music venues around the country into polling places as well. More Than a Vote has also helped bring attention to Florida’s use of legal fees to disenfranchise citizens with felony convictions. The organization cooperated with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to pay off fees on behalf of Floridians. This effort in turn inspired former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg to raise millions more towards restoring voting rights in the state.
2. NBA and WNBA players go on strike
In the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, NBA and WNBA players went on strike, disrupting the playoffs in each league. Though the Blake case itself is yet to be resolved, the players were able to leverage their power to push their leagues to take concrete actions towards racial justice. Most notably, the players got the NBA to convert most of its arenas into polling stations and early voting centers ahead of the November election, as well as air more ads relating to voter engagement during games.
3. Celebrities demand justice for Breonna Taylor
Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé have been among the many Black celebrities advocating for justice for Breonna Taylor. In June, Beyonce published an open letter to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, calling on him to charge the cops responsible for her death. The following month, Oprah featured Taylor on the cover of her O Magazine, marking the first time someone other than Oprah herself appeared on the front of the magazine. When announcing that no cops would be charged for killing Taylor, Cameron felt the need to clap back with a whiny statement aimed at the “celebrities, influencers and activists” who were pressuring him to do his job and hold someone responsible for Taylor’s death. The sustained pressure on Cameron and the state of Kentucky has forced increased transparency in the case.
4. Naomi Osaka highlights victims of violence
U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka used her time at America's premiere tennis tournament to highlight Black Americans killed by police or vigilante violence. During each of her seven matches, the tennis star wore a face mask featuring the name of a different Black person killed by police or by vigilantes: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
5. Jay-Z and Meek Mill's Reform Alliance wins major victory in California
Last year, Jay-Z and Meek Mill assembled a team that included New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Philadelphia 76ers owner to create the Reform Alliance. The prison reform advocacy group scored a significant win this Wednesday, when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a new law limiting the probation periods for felony and misdemeanor offenses in California.
6. Cardi B promotes WAP: Woke Ass Politics
Cardi B, when not creating chart-topping songs and albums, has often used her fame and platform to promote a number of progressive causes and candidates. She conducted one of the years most entertaining political interviews when she had a virtual sit down with Bernie Sanders in April to discuss Sanders' endorsement of Joe Biden and defeating Donald Trump. Cardi later interviewed Biden himself in August in a conversation for Elle magazine, covering everything from police brutality to universal healthcare.
7. Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”
As Blavity previously reported, Cardi B’s “WAP” collaborator Megan Thee Stallion went in on Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron during the season premiere of Saturday Night Love this past weekend. Her performance of her hit song “Savage” was coupled with a backdrop reflecting the words of activist Tamika Mallory, who compared Cameron to “sellout negroes” who sold other Black people into slavery. Megan’s performance also included calls to protect both Black women and Black men from violence.
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) October 4, 2020
8. Bubba Wallace brought Black Lives Matter to Nascar
Bubba Wallace, NASCAR's only full-time Black driver, drove a car painted with the BLM hashtag and imagery associated with the movement earlier this summer. He also successfully lobbied this summer for the racing league to ban fans from displaying the Confederate flag at races. Despite being booed by fans for his efforts, Wallace was recently announced as the driver of a new NASCAR team sponsored by fellow driver Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan.
9. Michael Jordan put justice ahead of sneakers
Michael Jordan, the superstar who once infamously passed on endorsing a Black Democratic Senate candidate in 1990 in his home state of North Carolina because he said "Republicans buy sneakers too," is now fully embracing politics and the BLM movement. In addition to sponsoring Wallace and helping to broker the NBA deal that ended the playoff strike, Jordan and the Jordan Brand jointly pledged $100 million “over the next 10 years to organizations dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice, and greater access to education.”
Commitment to action.
— Jordan (@Jumpman23) July 29, 2020
10. The Rock flexed for Biden-Harris
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson made his first ever political endorsement, coming out for Biden and Kamala Harris in a video message that immediately racked up millions of views across social media. The former wrestler and current action superstar has a more conservative fan base than most Black celebrities, meaning that his nod towards Biden and Harris has drawn significant backlash but may also actually influence more voters than other celebrity endorsements.
11. 100 famous Black men urged Biden to pick a Black woman running mate
The Biden-Harris ticket became a real possibility when the former Vice President pledged to pick a woman as his running mate during the Democratic primaries. As Blavity previously reported, 100 Black male celebrities, including Sean "Diddy" Combs, Charlemagne Tha God and Nick Cannon, signed an open letter on August 10 urging Biden to choose a Black woman for the slot. Though the letter did not specifically say he should choose Harris, it did defend the California Senator by name against attacks she had endured during the race. Biden announced Harris as his running mate the next day.
Whether rocking out on the SNL stage with a message geared toward the powerful or bringing a movement into a major sports leagues, platforms are powerful and the aforementioned celebs are using them for good.