Harry Belafonte on Using the Arts to Fight Injustice

March 24, 2015  • Aidan Flax-Clark, Guest Blogger

Aspen Institute Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel, left, in conversation with actor and activist Harry Belafonte. (Photo Credit: Erin Baiano)

Note: Watch the full video of this conversation

Few artists have had as significant an impact on both American culture and American politics as actor, singer, and social activist Harry Belafonte. The Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner was the featured guest at the inaugural public event for the Aspen Institute Arts Program’s new initiative, Race, Arts, and America.

Even a short laundry list of Belafonte’s achievements will stagger you: he helped introduce calypso music to America; he released the first million-selling LP by an American artist; he was the first black American to win an Emmy Award and was the first black television producer; and he conceived the idea for “We Are the World,” which raised upward of $70 million to fight hunger in Ethiopia.

Belafonte is also known for his tireless efforts during the civil rights era and his close association with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. He raised the money to get King released from Birmingham Jail in 1963, and also for the Freedom Rides; he helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963 and the “Stars for Freedom Rally” that initiated in 1965 the marches in Selma. He even helped set up a college fund for King’s children after King was murdered.

Belafonte joined Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater last week for a conversation about his life and about the power he witnessed in the arts to influence the issue of race, as well as those of human rights, diplomacy, and politics.

“I take advantage of these forums,” he said, “just in case there’s something someone needed to hear and I was the embodiment of that information,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about my conscience, that I had an opportunity to take advantage of a platform and didn’t use it.” 

Belafonte’s Early Life

Belafonte recounted the series of mentors who had shaped his life, among whom he includes the actor and singer Paul Robeson, King, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and, initially, his mother.

“I’d watch her come home night after night, with no income, with no success in looking for work, and one evening she came, and… she says, ‘Harry, let me tell you something. Never ever in your life go to bed at night knowing there was something you could do to fight injustice and never do it.’ And with that instruction, I had my marching orders at the age of seven.”

Belafonte was born in New York, but raised early on in Jamaica and later returned to New York. Injustice was “abundant in the community” he returned to. 

“I lived in the ghetto inside the ghetto… the West Indian community in Harlem was a small pocket of aliens living in the Harlem Black America, which in itself was fully ghettoized,” he said. “And the dilemmas, the experiences that we had in the context of that social coming-together shaped a lot of my values.”

Belafonte served in World War II and came back to an ungrateful country. “Black people didn’t fare so well… we still couldn’t vote, we still were second-class relics; we were still very oppressed,” he said. He described this stark return as his first awakening to the need for a commitment to social change.

A Life in the Arts

Belafonte’s life in the arts began with a chance discovery of his love for theater while working as a janitor’s assistant. A tenant gave him as a tip a ticket to a production at Harlem’s American Negro Theater. 

“The words began to flow; actors juggled human emotions… the power of that environment, what you can do with words — how magical the whole thing was,” Belafonte recalled. “I wanted to make it my business to become part of that.”

In the late 1940s, Belafonte performed at the ANT with actors such as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and he studied at the New School for Social Research alongside the likes of Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, and Bea Arthur. Belafonte crossed paths during this time with Paul Robeson, who furnished the young actor with one of the mantras Belafonte continues to intone today: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” Later during his conversation with Woetzel, Belafonte added to that idea: “Much that we know about the human existence has really been what artists have left for us to rummage through.” 

The other Robeson mantra Belafonte invokes: “Art is the radical voice of civilization.”

His break as a singer came after the GI Bill money he was using for school dried up. Unsure what to do for work, he was prompted by the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young — with whom Belafonte had struck up an acquaintance — to try singing.

Though not trained as a singer, Belafonte had sung some during his stage performances. And though he feared his inability to emulate jazz heroes such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, or Nat King Cole, when he heard Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie performing at the Village Vanguard and understood the raw emotional power even singers who aren’t technically gifted can convey, Belafonte said he thought to himself, “Now if that’s singing, I can get with that.”

Belafonte’s “Calypso” album cover (Photo Credit: Creative Commons)

“I found a way to do things with my own peculiar delivery, my own system,” he said. “My voice was hard to identify; I didn’t come from a genre. I didn’t come out of the church, I wasn’t a gospel singer. Didn’t come out the hardcore Southern experience and didn’t handle blues. I came from Jamaica, where I had a lot of Caribbean music at my disposal. 

“Critics never quite knew what to call me. Was I a folk singer; was I a bop singer, a no singer? What was I?”

Whatever he was, his first major single, a reworking of the calypso song “Matilda,” was released in 1953 and charted on the Billboard Pop charts, becoming one of his signature songs. A few years later, his album “Calypso,” on which “Day-O (the Banana Boat Song)” appears, became the first million-selling LP. Belafonte maintained a successful recording and performing career until his retirement in 2003.

Social Activism

On stage or screen, Belafonte’s politics were never far from his art. In fact they were rarely even separate. He described reprisals he endured for his commitment to civil rights, everything from being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, to having his records halfheartedly promoted by record labels, to not getting jobs on TV over sponsors’ fears that his politics would interfere with the sale of their products. 

Belafonte responded by deciding to “create an environment in which I could override the villainy of corporate America, those who choke the life out of culture in commercializing so much and out of picking who shall survive and not survive because they control the purse strings.” He built audiences around the world not reliant on commercial or popular appeal, most notably in France, Germany, and Japan. “So if you didn’t want to hire me as a sponsor, I really didn’t feel too terribly threatened,” he said. 

To Belafonte, it is that level of choice that has given him the greatest freedom, which is the freedom to remain true to his core values and beliefs. 

Civil Rights Activist Martin Luther King Jr., left, with Belafonte. (Photo Credit: Bibliolore)

“I think if there were an attempt to define what single thought placed me on a path that has served my interests and served the interests of those who seek me out, it has really been that I understood that I have the power of choice… very early on,” he said. 

“Just knowing Robeson wasn’t a coincidence,” he continued. “In the moment of it, it was a coincidence. But what happened from that moment on became a choice, a way of life, a study, an appetite for a certain kind of space in my life to be filled.” 

The same, he said, was true of his association with Roosevelt and King.

“Nothing was imposed on me,” he said. “What was imposed on me was the power that these people brought to the table, the human thought. And in the values that were imparted to me was where I found strength… I’ve lived in the midst of these people. I’ve lived in the midst of the struggle. I’ve let what comes out of this be that which nourishes the best that’s in me.”

Aidan Flax-Clark is senior project manager of the Aspen Institute Arts Program