Bieber has spent the better part of his twenties on the same mission, trying to prove to the world that the rowdy, debauched version of him that made headlines daily in his late teens is not the real Bieber. Over the last few years especially, he has found solace in two important relationships, with God and his wife, Hailey Bieber
Not even Atlanta creator Donald Glover (whose brother Stephen wrote the prophetic episode) could have predicted that Bieber’s path to righteousness would include vocals from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On the real Justice, released on Friday, the pop star includes not one but two samples from speeches Dr. King gave on justice, as it related to the civil rights movement he led.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. King says as the album opens. What follows is shockingly jarring: a well-crafted but unrelated love song dedicated to Bieber’s wife called “2 Much.”
Later in the album, Dr. King gets his own track, the nearly two-minute “MLK Interlude.” It features a portion of a sermon from 1967 titled “But If Not.” The rousing passage has the minister preaching the importance of standing up for what you believe in, even if you fear death. “But you’re just as dead at 38 as you are at 90,” he said at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. “You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”
You might think that Bieber would follow this moving speech with his own declaration for a cause of some sort, literally any cause. Instead, the ensuing Eighties-tinged synth-pop bop “Die For You” opens with “She’s a stranger to the night shift/The type of girl you only dream about.” In this case, the cause he would die for is the love of his life.
Outside of the album itself, Bieber is thankfully showing support for a number of social justice organizations, including the King Center’s Be Love campaign. Dr. King’s daughter Bernice tweeted her enthusiasm for Bieber’s philanthropic work, and presumably signed off on these interludes, since the King estate must approve and license his speeches and papers.
Like the corporate platitudes, hashtags, and Instagram black squares that marked the social media experience of last summer’s George Floyd protests, 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. There are no songs sung from Bieber’s lips about the racial justice, freedom, and equity that Dr. King died for. The justice Bieber seeks is for himself and how he is perceived; what he wants is to feel heard by the world as a misunderstood young, white man. On “Lonely,” he looks out from within his house of glass, as people “criticized the things [he] did as an idiot kid.” On “Deserve You,” he hopes he can be good enough for his wife. “I’m prayin’ that I don’t go back to who I was,” he admits.
During a virtual listening party for Justice, Bieber explained that as a Canadian, he hadn’t been thoroughly educated on Martin Luther King Jr. as a kid. “What I wanted to do with this was amplify [Dr.] Martin Luther King Jr’s voice to this generation,” he said. But what happens when that amplification feels like a joke? Placed in the context of a formidable and pretty fun pop album all about love and growing up, Dr. King’s inclusion leaves a bad taste. There is no soul-searching or depth to this particular type of activism. It feels instead like a defense tactic, with Dr. King’s words used as a shield for Bieber’s own regrets. He has done enough apologizing for being an “idiot kid,” sure, but slapping decontextualized words from one of our greatest orators in the middle of a wholly unrelated musical project is not the solidarity Bieber seeks.
Bieber can’t erase his past, but he can find better ways to atone and provide retribution in the future. Supporting organizations like the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Alexandria House, the Compton Pledge, Baby2Baby, the Equal Justice Initiative, LIFT, Self Help Graphics and Art, This Is About Humanity, and the Poor People’s Campaign are great steps towards that. Misusing a great leader’s powerful words for his personal gain, however? There’s no justice for anyone in that.