The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Celebrities can effectively use world stage to advocate for issues they care about.

Despite all the noise cluttering the entertainment world, celebrities with deeply felt causes and clear messages can rise above the din. The most recent Academy Awards ceremony offers a good example of actors and recording artists using a prominent stage to share passionate calls for activism and social justice.

Actress Patricia Arquette’s rallying appeal for equal pay for women brought Jennifer Lopez and Meryl Streep to their feet. Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras expressed worry about threats to our privacy and democracy. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu talked about his hope for Mexican immigrants to be treated with dignity. And music icons Common and John Legend moved some audience members to tears with their remarks about the ongoing civil rights struggle 50 years after Selma.

These brief social commentaries certainly gave viewers much more to think about than whether their favorite actor or artist won a golden statuette.

Celebrity messaging and political stances have been ingrained in our culture since the 1920s. Political historians point to Hollywood stars of the roaring decade such as Douglas Fairbanks and Lillian Russell, who endorsed Warren G. Harding for the presidency.

Today, while a filmmaker such as Poitras can garner a huge following with Oscar-winning documentaries such as “Citizenfour,” about Edward Snowden’s revelations, she may not wield the same influence as Common or Legend because of our world’s obsession with celebrity culture. When stars talk about causes, we take notice.

For instance, Common and Legend have used their celebrity status to voice concerns about poverty, education, health care and police brutality. In their collaboration on “Glory,” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the film “Selma,” Common’s rap lyrics included a reference to the Michael Brown tragedy: “Justice for all just ain’t specific enough, One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us, Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us, That’s why Rosa sat on the bus, That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.”


Celebrity messaging


Felecia Ross, an associate professor in Ohio State’s School of Communication, thinks artists like Common and Legend will continue to play an important role in social awareness, especially for the young.

“Young people listen to the music they produce, so they are likely to listen to anything else they have to say whether or not it is music related,” Ross said. “Celebrities have an advantage when they know how to communicate their ideas, and their fans feel as if they have a special kind of connection with them.”

For Legend, that connection runs deep because of the numerous causes he supports as an informed social activist. He is a member of the national board of Teach for America, which recruits college grads to instruct children in low-income communities, and gives his time and money to support the fight against AIDS. His selection in 2009 as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people is evidence of his impact beyond the music world.

Ross believes artists like Legend and Common are standing on the shoulders of musical activists such as Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. She draws comparisons between Mayfield’s recordings of the civil rights movement, such as “People Get Ready,” to the work Legend and Common did on the “Selma” soundtrack. Such work will remain in people’s consciousness, something she views as a positive attribute of celebrity messaging.

“Legend and Common’s Oscar buzz for ‘Glory’ is going to give them even more momentum to advocate for the causes they believe in,” Ross said. “They are in a unique position, and I think this is a good thing because unlike politicians, they are free to express themselves to the public in ways that do not constrain them. They are able to use their fame as a powerful, political platform, and people are intently listening to what they have to say.”

Jessica A. Johnson, ’94 MA, ’98 PhD, is a special correspondent for The Columbus Dispatch and an opinion columnist for The Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald. She is the author of the book Salt of the Earth Georgia Boy.