What's behind Jay Z and Beyonce's charity?

Story highlights

  • Brian Bush: Jay Z, Beyonce's charitable efforts come in wake of criticism of Jay Z's tone-deaf company launch with millionaire friends
  • Coincidence? He says Jay Z's been slammed for lack of social activism in past. He doubts new motives are pure, but effort has value

Brian C. Bush is a contributor to theGrio.com and works for the Tennessee Journal of Race, Gender, & Social Justice. Follow him on Twitter @BrianCB. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Music's first family, Mr. and Mrs. Shawn "Jay Z" Carter — that is Jay Z and Beyonce -- have been on quite the philanthropic streak, blurring the distinction between entertainer and saint.

Recent reports -- based on tweets from author, filmmaker and protest organizer Dream Hampton -- suggest the couple may have paid "tens of thousands" of dollars in bail money for those arrested while protesting the pattern of police brutality in Baltimore, specifically the killing of Freddie Gray in mid-April. In addition, the two may have given funds to help expand the "Black Lives Matter" campaign, designed to call attention to the plight of black Americans.
The generosity has even extended abroad. Just recently, Beyoncé paid a visit to Haiti to meet with citizens affected by the devastating 2010 earthquake. Photos from the trip show the singer smiling as she poses with aid workers, tours communities and passes out coloring books to children in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.
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In short, the hardest working couple in show business has certainly focused their recent efforts toward giving back.
But while my initial reaction as a fan is to applaud the gestures as admirable acts of charity by collective billionaires, the cynic within me wonders about the timing: Is the recent string of social activism genuine? Or is it merely an attempt to buoy Jay-Z's struggling music streaming service, Tidal, in hopes that pouring largesse into the public will produce Tidal-faithful in the future?
To be sure, we can't know what's in the couple's heart, but by now, Tidal's troubles are fairly well-known. The subscription-only service has produced little more than a resounding thud since its March launch.
Only two weeks after finding a spot in the U.S. iPhone "top 20 downloads" chart, Tidal plummeted out of the top 700 rankings, rising recently to a current ranking of 36th overall -- still 24 spots behind its chief competitor, Spotify.
I'm as shocked as anyone to discover that whatever the duo touches doesn't immediately turn to gold, but it's exactly the company's struggles that make the pairing's altruism look all the more suspect.
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Two reasons: The first is that over the years, Jay Z has been accused by many of being averse to stepping in on social issues, most notably in a slam by civil rights icon Harry Belafonte.
During a 2012 interview, Belafonte took aim at Carter, accusing the entertainer of not embracing his role as a social leader, saying, "... I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you're talking. I really think he is black."
Responding to the slight, Jay Z clumsily said, among other things, that, "I'm offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama's is. Obama provides hope."
Carter's phrasing was pretentious, yes, but I happen to think both of them could have made their points more respectfully. Still, I agree with Belafonte -- in part.
Carter doesn't fully embrace his role as a social leader; few men of his stature do. Instead, like skilled boxers or seasoned politicians, men like Carter tend to only engage themselves in situations that stand to produce personal success.
That would translate into only assuming a role as an "activist" when doing so is a politically safe move that doesn't threaten the bottom line (and hopefully improves it). Few people in history have crept up on a billion-dollar fortune by alienating parts of their consumer base.
The second cause for doubt was the widespread public criticism of Tidal's launch event, a nauseating display consisting of upwards of 10 millionaires standing on stage declaring, essentially, that they just aren't paid enough.
So what's the best way to change the public's perception of a company that seems solely designed to help the rich become richer? Give back to the community. Who can rightly gripe when the chief is doing such good in the communities with the money he's amassed over the years?
This isn't to say that Jay Z and Beyoncé haven't been charitable before — Jay Z runs a scholarship fund, the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation, for example. And last December he was partly responsible for printing the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts worn by NBA players in protest of the killing of Eric Garner.
It would be nice to think that it's all authentic-- that Jay Z and Beyoncé have reached a level of success that allows them to take bold stances without the fear of repercussions.
Realistically, though, I can't doubt the business acumen and foresight of a man who went from Brooklyn's Marcy Projects to being a regular guest and friend of the President. Let's hope we see more of this new generosity, no matter how Tidal fares.
At least the couple is doing something, right?