Recently, best-selling novelist Terry McMillan caused a mini-furor via Twitter when she pondered whether actor Jaden Smith, 12, and singer Willow Smith, 10, were being "pimped out" by their actor parents, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Willow created a buzz last year with her “Whip my Hair” single, and Jayden appeared in The Karate Kid. Lots of actors' offspring have careers as of their own, so why did this particular family come under scrutiny?
Maybe because a lot of people agree with her? With the Internet, we have more immediate access to what celebrities are doing and whom they are doing it with. Also, with Twitter, people can forget to use their "inner voice" and in 140 characters, write whatever comes to mind. In this particular case, McMillan wrote what I certainly wondered about, which was why these kids aren’t in school and whether their parents are using their children’s fame as a way to keep their names in the press. As Womanist Musings pointed out, McMillan isn't the only one doing the speculating: "Just typing in Willow Smith and education in a Google search window will reveal many hits."
After all, we have seen Willow, with her crazy hair and ridiculous attire (and might I add, clothing a bit too old for a ten-year-old to pull off) on various red carpets -- and, based on the success of one song, open for the likes of Justin Bieber, an enviable opportunity for aspiring musicians, young or old.
We have seen the Smith kids get career opportunities that others would vie for, not necessarily because of their talent, but more because their faces are becoming a mainstay on various celebrity sites, and because their father has made a lot of money in the commercial movie industry.
And if you have ever watched Celebrity Rehab or even simply followed what happened to child actors Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, Dana Plato, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, we can easily surmise that becoming a celebrity at a young age isn’t always the best thing to happen to a kid.
Despite what we may feel about the Smiths, what is interesting about this story is that it's an example of how Black communities seemingly have an emotional investment in the goings-on of Black celebrities -- a personal stake in what they do and what they do not do to "discredit the race." There is a vested interest in the success of Black celebrities, despite their personal dysfunctions. After all, if they can make a name for themselves in the fickle (and some say racist) entertainment industry, so can we…or our sons and daughters.
The response to Terry McMillan’s tweets was interesting. McMillan was in the news a few years ago, when the man she married, 20 years her junior, announced he was gay. Because she had written a book (How Stella Got Her Groove Back, later adapted for the big screen) based on their relationship, the press went wild with the revelation. Many commenters went after Terry McMillan for her tweets, citing her failed marriage. From the Huffington Post:
As someone whose had the unfortunate experience of meeting her in a social setting, Terry McMillan came across as a very unhappy bitter broad. She was brusque and seemed angry. So it's not surprising she would characterize the Smith children in this way. People who are happy in their own lives have no need for this.
… She does give off that vibe. BTW she didn't seem to have a problem being pimped by her ex-hubby.
As usual, it is almost a given that one who offers a dissenting opinion is the one who becomes the villain.
Questions about how Black celebrities are perceived and the role they play in our lives, also came up recently around how Black-centric websites, blogs and even folks on the street are going after singer Lauryn Hill, who is currently on tour. As with the Smiths, people seem to be fixated on Hill's image, what she represents within Black communities, and the almost metaphorical impact her life has on others.
Hill was a member of the successful Hip-Hop trio The Fugees who later went on to have a very successful, very short, solo career -- outside of the occasional solo show, she faded into relative obscurity for several years. Hill just wound up a rare tour, during which some were dismayed by her late starts, short set lengths, and lackluster performance. The New York Times reported of Hill's Williamsburg show:
Each minute without Ms. Hill’s presence gnawed away at the collective good will in the room. After a while a few cups and bottles arced through the air and landed onstage at the feet of her band, musicians sent to the slaughter, who’d been idly vamping along with the songs the D.J. was playing — anything to pass the time, really.
Two fans in the front row hand-wrote signs: “You Just Lost One,” “This Is Insulting.” One of the keyboard players taped a reply on his kit: “I Was on Time.” When Ms. Hill finally took the stage a little after midnight — a few minutes after arriving at the club and getting carried over piles of snow on the street, one witness reported — she was primed for a fight.
While Hill's sets consisted of her "greatest hits," the original compositions had been so rearranged that fans weren’t even sure what they were listening to. According to Popeater:
Fans, already weary of her growing reputation for being late, waited patiently for her arrival, three hours after doors opened. Once again announcing that she would be adding a new spin to some of her old music, Hill launched into performances of "barely recognizable" versions of songs from her critically acclaimed 1998 release, 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.' The show reportedly went on well past 1AM, causing some audience members to leave the concert, while others stayed until the early morning.
While all of the shows on the tour have been sold out, ticket prices were steep and people wondered if they had been taken advantage of. They wanted the old Lauryn, and they wanted the original music.
Some (former) fans have reacted to Hill’s lackluster appearances as a stab to the heart, believing that because her solo album,1998's The (Mis)Education of Lauryn Hill made such an emotional impact in their lives, she has the responsibility to look, behave, and sing the same way she did almost 15 years ago -- even though over the past six years there have been numerous instances that this was not going to happen:
When Lauryn took the stage (in 2004), the audience was in a frenzy. I saw people crying and hugging themselves. A voice yelled out, "We love you, Lauryn!" And with a look that could have convinced summer it was winter, Lauryn responded, "You don't know me." The feeling that ran through my bones was chilling. No matter how much we loved her and for how long, Lauryn seemed to hate "us" now.
Writing for The Root, Bassey Ikpi writes that for her, Hill’s image represented the social acceptance of young, Black, dark-skinned beautiful women in the media:
I've carried Lauryn with me since I was 17. From the first time I heard her spit to the last exhaled inflection, I was hers. Though just one year older, she was the cooler big sister I wanted to be. And that face! That kinky halo of hair and her wide, deep-set eyes, full lips and cocoa-tinted skin -- I was in love. For the first time, there was a celebrity who looked like me……………. I carried Lauryn with me like a guide. She wore her heart on her sleeve, unafraid to push up those sleeves and show us the color of her heart. I felt like Lauryn and I were friends. I was thrilled to see her rocking high fashion and cultured locks at the same time. She was stiletto and steel, and I loved that the world was finally embracing me. I mean ... her.
But some have realized that while once, she represented the best aspects of young Black women, perhaps her lackluster performances are a sign that it is time for people to stop adulating her and other Black celebs. Can the same be said in relation to watching the Smith family’s every move? I think so. From A Belle in Brooklyn:
The next time I’m confused, vulnerable, and in need of security, I’ll stop looking for Ms. Hill’s return and look to myself instead. She told me the answers were all within. I should have listened all along.
Contributing Editor, Race, Ethnicity & Culture
Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com
Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca
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