When we were growing up in Hollis, Queens in the ’70s, there was not a single person who wasn’t affected by the drug epidemic that began to ravage our community. Before President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1973, black people in America were already feeling the devastating effects of addiction and poverty. It wasn’t to anyone’s surprise, that after the advances of the Civil Rights Movement, there would be new roadblocks manufactured to stop the impeding progress of black people across the country. I don’t think anyone would have imagined that the war would have raged this long; one that has failed miserably at curbing drug abuse and sales, but has accomplished it goals of incarcerating more people than any other nation in the world, most of whom are black and brown. The “New Jim Crow” has systematically destroyed the fabric of the black community, as Michelle Alexander brilliantly explains in detail in her book with the same title, however things are beginning to shift.
Ever since the early days of Def Jam in the 1980s, I wanted to use my “celebrity” to uplift the voices of others. For thirty plus years, I have been fortunate to have a platform to amplify issues that matter to the health of our nation and our planet. Whether it is animal rights, LGBTQ rights, human rights or criminal justice reform, I have consistently spread messages of compassion, generosity and equity. And during my lifetime, I have encouraged my fellow artists, actors, athletes and personalities to use their voices as well to champion causes that uplift our collective humanity. Up against a corrupt political machine, that is still well-oiled by corporate greed and shady lobbyists, the commitment to the work is more critical today than it’s ever been. And when a right-wing rag tried to spin a two-year old story about a collective of artists who asked President Obama to champion the cause of criminal justice reform, I felt compelled to shut it down! Because we know, that when change is coming, the first communities that the right-wing tries to discredit are the artists, the activists and the young people. For they know, that the words of Paul Robeson still ring true today, that “artists are the gatekeepers of truth,” and they don’t want to hear the truth. The truth about the suffering of our communities. The truth about the shift in power of this nation. And the truth about our President.
As we enter the last year of President Obama’s term in office, the list of the accomplishments of his administration stacks up against the greatest Presidents this country has ever seen. From healthcare to immigration reform to climate change to a shift in our diplomacy, President Obama has always put the people of this country first. And in this final year, this last 12 months, his commitment to criminal justice reform is at the forefront of his agenda. Lifting up the voices of the artists, the activists and the young people, President Obama has already transformed our criminal justice system in unprecedented ways, but we know the work is not done. Congress must join him on this crucial mission to end a failed “War on Drugs” and a nation’s addiction to mass incarceration. That is why I am proud to partner with Van Jones and Michael Skolnik in the #JusticeReformNOW campaign that includes the support of over 100 artists and celebrities. Just yesterday, Alicia Keys, traveled to Washington to speak to lawmakers about the urgent need to fix our system. Voices are being uplifted, the truth is being heard.
I am more optimistic and hopeful than ever. Sparked by an uprising in Ferguson, led by a new generation, many of whom are young, black women, the “gatekeepers of truth,” are now equipped with cell phones, video cameras and instant access to news and information. As Harry Belafonte says, “when the movement is strong, the music is strong.” That is why the millions of young people who carry forth the #BlackLivesMatter movement have inspired so many of us to commit even further to dismantling our broken system of injustice. They are leading this movement and it strengthens everyday, evidenced in the battle won by the students of the University of Missouri just this week. And I will continue to play my part, to amplify their messages, their stories, their triumphs and tribulations, while encouraging my friends with public profiles to do the same.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty