If you want real talk on everything from the state of hip-hop to the state of the nation then Jeff Johnson’s your man. Because when Jeff Johnson speaks, people listen. And it’s not hard to understand why. A respected social commentator and television host, most notably of the self-titled BET show The Jeff Johnson Chronicles, Johnson has established himself as an unwavering activist, earning his stripes in the NAACP before making his move in to the world of entertainment following a chance meeting with a TV executive. Now stepping out on his own to produce quality programming that will both educate and entertain, Johnson took time out from work and fatherly duties to speak to Clutch about where the world is at and where it’s going. Listen in…
Q: How do you see the relationship between hip-hop and politics these days? Does hip-hop have a role to play in educating people about politics?
I think hip-hop can be used as a vehicle to educate and direct people around politics but the decision is up to those who are part of the hip-hop community. There’s a problem when we start looking to the hip-hop industry to provide leadership which they never committed to providing. I’m not looking for DMX or Jay-Z or Kanye or anybody else to be my political representation or political leadership. I’m looking for young people in the hip-hop community who’ve been trained, who have a level of business, who’ve said this is what they want to do. Those are the people who I think have the ability to use hip-hop as a tool towards educating and empowering and directing it to electoral policy. Hip-hop artists have a responsibility to sell CDs because that’s their job. Now if there are those that feel they have a talent to be able to do more than that then I’m all for it. But I get concerned when there’s this view that just because somebody goes platinum they have a responsibility to lead their people.
Q: BET, your former station, has been criticized a lot for the quality of its programming. Do they and other black stations have a responsibility to educate the people they serve?
I would like to see more balanced programs. Again, I’m not looking to television to educate or empower my kids. That’s my job. But I’d like to see more balanced programs that have better representations of the broader community, not just on BET but on NBC, CBS, HBO, every one that’s out there. I don’t, however, feel like they have a responsibility to educate or empower. I think their goal is to make money and to create programs that advertisers will purchase so that their network stays on the air. But if we’re gonna have a television station, a radio conglomerate or any other kind of media educate and empower, then we need to create a network charged with doing that. Otherwise we’re asking for the few things, yet again, that they’ve never committed to do.
Q: How important is black media ownership, which has been on the decline over the years (Essence is owned by Time Warner and BET by Viacom)?
I would love to see us own more media outlets. But I’m a realist and understand that capitalism is about making money. There has to be a balance between what we would like to see ideally and the reality in a capitalist-run economy.
Q: Do you think America, and indeed the world, is ready for the first black President of the USA?
That’s a great question. Sometimes I feel like Barack Obama is dating the white girl from the liberal family. The parents are cool with him coming home for dinner but they’re not really excited about him bringing her a ring. America is comfortable dating Barack Obama but it’s not sure if they want to get married. There continues to be this very real racism in America that too often isn’t discussed. America is preoccupied with race but it very seldom discusses it in a productive way. And we saw that with the accusations around Barack Obama’s pastor but we still haven’t had a fundamental conversation on race in America that helps us deal with the reality of the hurt and pain and the historical dynamic of what this nation has done to people of color.
Q: A lot has been made of the fact that some African-Americans aren’t supporting Obama because he’s mixed-race or African and not African-American. Is this true?
No, that’s press spin because most black people that I know, whether they are black Americans from America or Africans who have become American citizens or Caribbeans, West Indians, Brazilians, everybody from the Diaspora, many of them have embraced Barack Obama because he’s black. The reality is there are probably more black people supporting Barack Obama simply because he’s black than because of any relevant policies. So I don’t buy in to that.
Q: It’s interesting that you should say that because, living outside of America, I think people abroad are more ready for a black US President than people in America!
I don’t think we’re acknowledging the potential global impact that a Barack Obama presidency can have in places like Great Britain and France, Portugal and other European countries where there are large populations of Diaspora people, where those people have been on the fringes or lower level of political electoral policy for a decade but where there’s still a question of will there ever be, or when will there be, a Diaspora president. I don’t hear black Americans talking about the global impact of a Barack Obama presidency and I think him becoming president of America has global implications, at least European implications, in Western European countries that have large populations of Diaspora people who are saying, just like we’re saying in America, “When is the right time for someone who looks like me to lead this nation?”
Q: What are the most pressing issues facing African-Americans and the wider black Diaspora today?
It’s a difficult question because there’s not a monolithic African-American or Diaspora community. Depending on what your education level is and how much money you have and the world you live in that may be different. But there are issues plaguing all of us, like climate change. And as much as it’s not on the radar, I think the long-term implications of climate change are going to most drastically affect poor people, whether it’s relating to immigration or natural resources. Education is a major issue all over the world in the Diaspora, whether it’s black Americans living below an economic level that affords them the ability to pay for private school and are forced to deal with public education that is destroying our young people, intellectually, emotionally and socially, or our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where, if you don’t have a certain income, you can’t even afford to go to school. Health remains a major issue. And people of color in America, in particular, are feeling the prison industrial complex system. The number of people of color in prison for non-violent offences in the United States drastically outnumbers any other country in the world.
Q: Moving abroad, you’ve interviewed President Bashir of Sudan. Why does America, and African-America, in particular, continue to ignore Darfur?
One of the things that I hear regularly in the United States is, “We’ve got problems at home, we don’t have time to be dealing with stuff all over the world.” I don’t agree with that. I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. There’s an education process that’s lacking. I don’t think we’ve done a good job about talking about the significance of Darfur. There’s a cultural connection that binds us to our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora but America is a product of its own isolation. Most Americans don’t travel America let alone feel this great sense or need to see the rest of the world. Most of us feel like America is the centre of the universe and that has been one of our biggest problems, seeing everything through the lens of America. But there’s a much broader, diverse, global community. And I think that‘s one of the symptomatic reasons why America, in particular, has not connected to this tragedy that’s taking place in Darfur.
Q: For those of us who can’t dedicate our life to activism what can we do to make a difference?
There’s a misnomer about what activism is. Activism doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got to be on the frontline of a march, rally or demonstration. It doesn’t mean you have to be in an organization. It simply means you’re willing to be involved in making a change in something. So the three things that I would recommend that anyone can do is: 1) Identify what makes you angry, what makes you sad, what moves you emotionally and understand that, on the other side of that emotion is a call for you to be involved in the capacity that you can. Once you’ve identified that issue, then 2) ask what is my capacity to add impact? For example, I work 80 hours a week. I don’t have time to go to a meeting but I can write a check to an organization. I don’t feel like I have the capacity to provide large-scale leadership but I can volunteer an hour of my time a month. What is my capacity right now to create impact on that issue? Because a lot of us say I’m gonna wait till I’m rich or famous or wait, wait, wait when the reality is if we simply start giving now, as we evolve, our capacity for giving evolves. Lastly, 3) we have to be willing to take that spirit of activism wherever we go. So whether you’re a judge, doctor, lawyer or grandmother if you take that spirit of being active with you everywhere you go then it will infect other people.
To learn more about Jeff Johnson please visit www.jeffsnation.com