by Lucy Holland
After a year of historic protests and calls for racial justice internationally, on Mar. 19, Justin Bieber decided to throw his hat into the ring of performative activists. In his sixth studio album, Justice, Bieber samples Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful words, but fails to mention racial injustice. In his 16-track album, 14 of the songs are about his love for his wife, Hailey Bieber.
Bieber’s album opens with a sample from Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” After a powerful opening from arguably the most influential civil rights leader in modern United States history, you might expect Bieber to make at least a partial attempt at connecting his song to some sort of call for equality or justice. Instead, the song 2 Much transitions into Bieber’s soft vocals “Maybe I stare too much, maybe not long enough. Funny how I forget to blink.” The rest of the album follows suit with song after song about his relationship with and love for his wife.
Track 7, MLK Interlude, is devoted solely to Dr. King, sampling one minute and 44 seconds of King’s 1967 sermon titled But If Not. After King’s rousing speech in which he states, “If you have never found something so dear and so precious to you, that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live.” Once again, you might expect Bieber to follow with at least some call to support a cause he believes in. Instead, Bieber’s eighth track Die For You (Feat. Dominic Fike) begins with, “She’s a stranger to the night shift. The type of girl you only dream about.” Following Dr. King’s statement, Bieber includes an upbeat pop song about putting his life on the line, not for justice, equality, or any cause he is passionate about, but for his wife.
As Brittany Spanos from Rolling Stone put it, “Bieber’s positioning of our most iconic civil rights leader in the middle of an album about loving his wife is well-meaning but empty.” He benefits from the timeliness of the topic of social justice without ever advocating for the cause. He quite literally inserts himself into Dr. King’s monologue when he cuts off the word “justice” in the sentence, “You died when you refused to stand up for justice” at the end of the MLK interlude to sound more like “Justin.” When asked about the title of the record, Bieber told Vogue “I named it Justice because there’s so much injustice in this world and there has been since the beginning of time […] My name [Justin] actually means justice, so there’s that.”
Bieber follows suit to so many performative trends that have emerged in the past year. People are easily willing to admit that there is injustice in this world just like Bieber, but fail to do anything to bring about any semblance of change. Bieber defended his action of placing the MLK samples in his album by stating that he was trying to “amplify [MLK’s] incredibly, touching speech.” But his statement leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many, implying that in order to have a platform, one of the greatest speakers and social justice activists in history needs a young white man. Bieber also says, “I’m not trying to make a connection between me and Martin Luther King… That’s why I never try to talk about social injustice or I didn’t want to be the one to talk about it because I just have so much more learning to do.” But with this statement, Bieber leaves the actual work to be done up to others while he sits back and uses King’s words to his advantage as a selling point in his album.
(Sources: Rolling Stone, Insider, Billboard, Vogue)