On March 1, 2012, Harry Belafonte turned 85 years old. He has been traveling around the country, in tandem with the release of his memoir, My Song, and the feature-length documentary Sing Your Song. In his appearance at 92nd Street Y, where he was interviewed by Charlie Rose, much of his conversation focused on the confluence of art and activism in his life.
He came on stage walking with a cane. His voice was raspy, yet the force of his personality and the candor of his opinions were as forthright as when he articulated for “tearing down racial barriers, wherever he saw them,” in the 1950s. He explained to Rose that it was necessary for him to bare his soul, and relate his personal history with major figures including Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy, and Nelson Mandela. He wanted to “take care of myths forever and set certain stories straight.”
Belafonte ran down the themes he examined in his autobiography, and which were illustrated in Sing Your Song. He began with the humorous aside, “The most important person in my life was my mother, and I knew that before I met Freud.” He noted that his mother was a strong supporter of engaging inequity, and how much of his worldview was seen through her prism. She told him early on, “When you grow up, son, never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.” In his book, Belafonte writes, “It was my Rosebud—the moment that imprinted itself on me more lastingly, and meaningfully, than any other.”
Exposed to a new way of thinking when he attended a performance at the American Negro Theatre, Belafonte informed Rose, “It was my first real epiphany. It struck me with a force. It was stunning. I knew that was an environment where I wanted to be.” Belafonte continued, “Artists have power, the largest power in the universe. The artist is a supreme being, and art is to define our humanity, to encourage.”
While speaking of the intersection between social activism and the cultural path that would define his existence, Belafonte introduced the pivotal role that Robeson played in his development, referencing him frequently throughout the evening. Belafonte said, “My whole life was an homage to him.” One of Belafonte’s quintessential stories is that of Robeson coming to the Village Vanguard to see his show, and the backstage visit that ensued. Robeson told Belafonte, ”Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.” Along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Robeson would influence and “set his course in life,” giving him an “appetite for the truth.”
Despite the excitement of the theater world, Belafonte was dismayed to realize, “There were no plays for us.” This reality in part paved the road toward his musical journey. Having sung onstage in the role of a troubadour, Belafonte saw an independent opportunity to earn a living. He enlightened Rose, “The idea that I was going to get work took away all doubts that I could sing.”
Feeling disconnected from the jazz and pop standards of the day, Belafonte gravitated to the examples of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger. He went to the Library of Congress to research and study the thousands of folk melodies compiled by Alan Lomax. Seeger had started a movement called People’s Songs, to “force social change” through music. Belafonte, looking for an “authenticity of experience,” saw this type of material as a way to fuse his “passion for politics and art.” He culled tunes of protest and rebellion, harmonies from the plantation and life on the chain gang. They were “anthems of the dispossessed and cries for justice.”
Belafonte expanded his repertoire by adding calypso music, an influence from the years he had spent growing up in Jamaica, where he was sent to live with his grandmother. His 1956 album, Calypso, became the first LP to sell more than a million copies. As Belafonte frequently stated, he “acted” his songs. Film opportunities arose, but he soon learned that Hollywood was “a reflection of the country it entertained.” Disillusioned with his experiences, Belafonte related his realization to Rose, “Trying to change Hollywood was not the game. You had to change America. So my activism became more intense.”
In the spring of 1956, Belafonte’s life took a turn when he received a phone call from Martin Luther King. After spending four hours speaking with King, Belafonte knew “he would be in his service.” King told Belafonte, “I need your help. I have no idea where this movement is going.” Belafonte’s course became set for the next twelve years.
A member of King’s trusted inner circle, Belafonte served as an intermediary with John F. Kennedy—who was looking for support from the black community as he geared up for a presidential run. Belafonte was also at the forefront of developing a relationship with Robert F. Kennedy. King had articulated, “Somewhere in this man sits good. Our task is to find his moral center and win him to our cause.”
By 1958, Belafonte entered into a new phase, where fighting for civil rights “would take precedence over almost all.” Simultaneously, through his relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, he would be introduced to African leaders from the United Nations and the struggle of African nations from their “inception.”
Belafonte was constantly reminded by the entertainment world that in order “to change the culture, you have to change the country.” His Emmy award-winning television shows ran afoul of sponsors who didn’t want integrated casts. Rather than compromise, he devoted extensive time to “the movement.” This manifested itself not only through a commitment of personal time, but through deep financial support as well. In the 1960s, when the Freedom Riders mission was taken over by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Belafonte helped keep it alive with a $40,000 gift. He was instrumental in getting celebrities and artists on board to participate in the 1963 March on Washington. Decades later, he would play the same role in spearing the We Are the World project, which garnered over $100 million from record sales and merchandise for famine relief in Africa.
After being “in the eye of the hurricane” during the American civil rights struggle, Belafonte became involved in African liberation actions during the 1970s. He served as cultural adviser to the Peace Crops, focusing on African countries. With the South African singer Miriam Makeba, he employed “the power of art as an instrument of rebellion,” releasing the Grammy recognized album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. It introduced American audiences to both African songs and the aspirations of the continent’s emerging nations.
Belafonte engaged in the sanctions initiatives against South Africa, with the end game of extinguishing apartheid and freeing Nelson Mandela. He assisted the African National Congress in raising money and awareness. In 1977, he founded TransAfrica, the first lobbying group to address African issues. Through setting up a foundation to aid students from Africa and the Caribbean to find higher education opportunities in America, Belafonte hoped to help shape the next generation of leaders.
In 1987, when Belafonte became a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, he organized a forum called, “Artists and Intellectuals for Children.” The mission was to bring together an alliance of Africa’s “leading artists and thinkers to focus on children’s issues.” In 1994, when he was part of a fact-finding trip to Rwanda, he was left shaken and unsure—after forty years of activism—“that the world could be a better place.”
Yet undeterred, at 79, Belafonte was still touring—spending almost a third of the year on the road. In 2001, he produced an album that had been gestating for years, The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, which traced black history through the examination of its music.
During the evening at 92Y—as in his autobiography—Belafonte frankly shared his reflections on President Obama, who he believes has not addressed several key matters. Foremost for Belafonte is concern for the poor, homeland security laws that are still on the books, and the fact that America has “the largest prison populations in the world—primarily people of color.” He observed, “When you’re building more prison cells than classrooms, something’s wrong with the equation.”
Receiving a warm and extended ovation from a full house, Belafonte exemplified a life devoted to art and activism. Near the end of the evening, when asked by Rose about the Occupy Wall Street movement, Belafonte responded emphatically, “Now we’re on the march.”
This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.