Yesterday was the first day of Ramadan. The rapper/actor Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) released a video on YouTube, in which he volunteered to be force-fed, as per the procedures used on hunger-striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay. (For the period of Ramadan, they will not be force-fed after sun up or before sundown.) As I write this post, it has over 3.7 million hits.
It's an uncomfortable watch (and it's embedded below; but again: uncomfortable). Crying and screaming, Bey had to stop the procedure before it was complete. Most detainees undergo the procedure for a couple of hours.
Not that YouTube comments or tweets are a fair barometer of sane society, but no sooner had the video gone up than the Bey backlash spewed forth. If Tilda Swinton did this in an art museum, there would be less hoopla. But Yasiin is black, with an Arabic name, and he's a rapper. So.
"Yassin Gay, you are one fake-ass bitch," said one. Obama is a "coon" and Mos Def is an "irrelevant rapper" looking for a publicity stunt, and so on and so forth.
First: is it a celebrity's place to get political and human rightsy? I do not believe, as Angelina Jolie has said, that that is what celebrity is "for." Celebrity isn't "for" anything. It's a side effect of being a singer or movie star or athlete. Parents, teachers and elected politicians are "for" taking on the responsibilities of education and morals and such. Singers, movie stars and athletes are "for" entertaining us.
But, if a celebrity wants to get outspoken, whatever their motivations, it is a free country. (Unless you're suspected of extremism and held in Guantanamo Bay.) Why do people care so much? Get behind a presidential campaign, become a Goodwill Ambassador, do a PSA for gay marriage or Bradley Manning, tell the world that Bush doesn't care about black people. Sure, it can get uncomfortable, but isn't it a far more palatable form of publicity, than, say, dating or pretending to date a bunch of celebrities (John Mayer), or, giving your hotly anticipated new album away four days earlier to owners of a certain phone or downloaders of a certain app (Jay-Z)?
For those calling publicity stunt on Bey, well, it's a fairly painful way to go about it, is all I'm saying.
A remarkably sound YouTube comment says:
"I like how this comments section turned into a pointless argument. Meanwhile, at Guantanamo Bay *points at video*"
Which is exactly the point.
Who cares what Bey's motivations were? (Personally, given the nature of his music and his general political bent, I believe they are genuine and not an attempt to sell records, concert tickets or Be Kind Rewind Blu-Rays.) He's shedding light on a reality of living in America, the world, etc. The New Yorker might write about such a thing, but then, only New Yorker readers would know about it. A Michael Moore might make a movie about such a thing, but then, you'd have to pay for it. Here we have a free, short glimpse into some people's horrifying reality.
Or a clipped representation of it, at least.