Alicia Keys' planned Israel concert inspires backlash from black peers

OPINION - As unifying as much music can be, sometimes the people need more than just a song. Our stars need to step up. Period...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

To her credit, Alicia Keys has worked tirelessly to make sure she isn’t the only one to benefit from her celebrity.

Once in an interview with Marie Claire, Alicia spoke of a trip in 2002 that sparked in her a desire to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Alicia explained to the reporter, “That trip was my wake-up call. As soon as I got off the plane, everything hit me: driving from the airport and seeing the shantytowns right next to the golf courses, being asked if I wanted to go to a ‘colored’ club … And I met these kids who were younger than me who didn’t have any parents — they said they were HIV-positive.”

This was while Alicia was en route to a vacation in the Seychelles islands and upon making an $85 order of eggs and orange juice, she compared that experience to the one she just saw. “I knew I wanted to do something,” Alicia concluded.

It’s clear that Alicia Keys can be called to action after being exposed to pressing issues, but like many of her contemporaries, she engages more in philanthropy than political activism. Both do much in the way of making the lives of people better, but the latter is clearly the more controversial – and potentially more threatening to an entertainer’s career. As a result, many artists stick to charity versus getting chatty about issues that might hurt their bottom line.

That’s why I’m not exactly surprised that Alicia isn’t bowing to pressure to abandon plans to do a performance in Tel Aviv on July 4.

A concert in the ‘apartheid country’

Currently, Israel is facing an academic and cultural boycott organized by the Palestinian Civil Society and joined by international activists in solidarity the Palestinians.

Last month, University of Cambridge physicist and cosmologist Stephen W. Hawking, pulled out of a high-profile conference to be held there in June.

In an open letter posted on its site, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel pleaded with Alicia to abandon concert plans and “to join the rising tide of resistance.”

Not long after, celebrated author Alice Walker wrote Alicia Keys for a similar request.

The Color Purple author warned that she was placing herself in “soul danger” by performing in an “apartheid country” presently “being boycotted by many global conscious artists.”

Walker also reminded Alicia of our own people’s history, noting:“We changed our country fundamentally, and the various boycotts of Israeli institutions and products will do the same there. It is our only nonviolent option and, as we learned from our own struggle in America, nonviolence is the only path to a peaceful future.”

A lesson from Lena Horne

Their points are strong, but Alicia isn’t wavering.

In a statement to the New York Times, the multi-platinum singer said: “I look forward to my first visit to Israel. Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.”

Though I don’t begrudge Alicia Keys for her decisions, it demonstrates a lack of gravitas seen from our biggest entertainers – especially those of color. It’s a point singer and activist Harry Belafonte has repeated over the years, and though I may disagree with him tonally at times, there is a truth to the sentiment.

During World War II, Lena Horne refused to sing for segregated audiences. As Al Sharpton wrote of Ms. Horne, “Never one to back down in the face of opposition, this passionate woman even flung a table lamp and an ashtray at a man who called her a racial epithet.”

You don’t get that anymore, which is maddening considering how much injustice lingers here and abroad. Worse, we get stories about acts like Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Usher performing for dictators.

People need more than a song

Remember when Alicia Keys was booked to play the role of Lena Horne? Who knows what happened to the movie, but the resemblance between the stars doesn’t go beyond the aesthetic.

I’ve seen cries of “bullying” and “anti-Semitism” in defense of Alicia with others applauding her for sticking to her commitments. The first two options are as stupid as stupid gets.

Sure, you can argue that she booked a tour date and she needn’t punish her fans for the mistakes of their government, but some things are bigger than money.

And as unifying as much music can be, sometimes the people need more than just a song. Our stars need to step up. Period.

Follow Michael Arceneaux @youngsinick