Becoming Belafonte, Judith E. Smith

Harry Belafonte and the Art of Activism

Harry Belafonte’s life and work loom large over this moment when artists of color are exercising their activist voices.

Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical
Judith E. Smith
University of Texas Press
May 2016 (reprint)
The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music
Sony Legacy
7 December 2006

It’s a great time for people of color making art. The architecture around the art and the commodification of the art and the industry authenticating that art is a different thing than the art-making. I’m excited about the art coming out of this time; culture and class and gender and race and all of that is being interrogated in a way that is, for many of us, like an open wound. And there are artists trying to heal it. You look from Ferguson, Missouri to now, you see all kinds of art, from television to film to theater to fine art, music. I’m more excited about that than Hollywood’s treatment of it.

— Ava DuVernay, “Ava DuVernay on Hollywood Racism and Optimism: A Conversation with Rebecca Solnit“, New York,19 September 2016

We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.

Jesse Williams, accepting the BET Humanitarian Award, 26 June 2016

Oh, what times these are for the warrior spirit of black pop culture. In the last two years, we’ve seen a string of riveting work by artists of color that not only crackles with energy, but also speaks to and about America’s racial power dynamics and how we navigate them. It’s as if a massive call-and-response cipher is happening, with a never-ending string of atrocities being countered by a never-ending string of affirmations.

Of course, you can’t actually say that the murder of Michael Brown begat Black-ish begat Black Messiah begat Selma begat To Pimp a Butterfly begat Between the World and Me begat Straight Outta Compton begat Hamilton begat Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show begat Coloring Book begat The Underground Railroad begat Atlanta begat the National Museum of African American History & Culture begat The Birth of a Nation begat “Don’t Touch My Hair” begat James Baldwin: I Am Not Your Negro begat everything I just left out (no disrespect) begat on and on to the breaka breaka dawn. But it sure seems that way.

As vital and important as this creative output is, and for all the ways it is vital and important (personal, political, historical, contemporary, you name it), it’s all indebted to a different kind of speaking truth to power. That’s the work of the boots on the ground, the people in the streets, the hellraisers insisting their way into the rooms where power happens. Jesse Williams’ BET Awards speech alluded to those folks – “the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do” – and also came from that very spirit itself. It was different from a movie or book, or any other creative product. It wasn’t art in the spirit of social justice; it was a direct act of making social justice.

Williams has walked this talk consistently (he was part of a #OscarsSoWhite protest event in Flint, Michigan, on the night of the 2016 Academy Awards, among other actions), which speaks to why he received the award. But it also speaks to a different fusion of art and activism, in which celebrity power is explicitly leveraged to make social change. In that respect, it’s not for nothing that Williams sits on the advisory board of, an organization founded to pursue that very mission.

It’s also not for nothing that Sankofa was founded by the artist whose life embodies that notion, Harry Belafonte.

Belafonte is that rarity among American stars: he hasn’t had a hit movie or film in nearly 60 years but still retains every ounce of his street cred. Belafonte has successfully used his talent and star power to serve numerous mighty causes. He befriended Martin Luther King, Jr. and provided moral and financial support to the Civil Rights Movement. He took up the anti-apartheid mantle early and eventually supported Nelson Mandela’s 1990 US tour. His most sweeping musical project, a ten-year labor of love – The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, a lavish box set which, after laying in the vaults for years, just so happened to be released on 9/11 – is a re-creation of black America’s musical roots, all the way back to slavery. He even produced the 1984 film Beat Street, one of Hollywood’s first whacks at hip-hop. He has not rested on his laurels but has instead deployed them.

Judith E. Smith’s Becoming Belafonte (originally published in 2014, now out in paperback) explains in the simplest of terms how all of this was possible: Belafonte was an artist-activist from day one.

Born to Caribbean immigrants in New York City in 1927, Belafonte grew up in hardscrabble times, including a couple of years with his mother’s family in Jamaica. During a stint in the Navy, Belafonte got his first taste of progressive thinking from interacting with fellow black sailors in a segregated environment. After the Navy, he returned to New York and went looking for something to do with his newfound political energy.

He found it in, of all places, the theater. As payment for some handyman work, Belafonte received a ticket to a production by the American Negro Theater. The troupe was committed to telling progressive stories of racial harmony, and to providing black actors with roles to play besides maids and butlers. Belafonte immediately found fellowship with the American Negro Theater troupe, garnering small roles in productions and making friends like fellow American Negro Theater member Sidney Poitier. After a performance in his most prominent American Negro Theater role, Paul Robeson came backstage to meet and congratulate him; Robeson’s joining art and activism would greatly inspire Belafonte.

Belafonte immersed himself in left-wing performance, studying both drama and singing at the Dramatic Workshop, part of the New School for Social Research. After classes, he hung out in NYC’s bebop scene, and even had a few gigs singing jazz at the Royal Roost nightclub. He was also drawn to the city’s folk music scene, especially the People’s Songs organization, which sought to use folk songs as consciousness-raising tools.

As Belafonte took on more gigs, his approach reflected his broadening artistic and political perspectives. He moved away from jazz and pop singing (not that he was getting rich from it), and fell in with the burgeoning black progressive arts scene. Still needing to make a living for his young family, he went in on a burger joint in Greenwich Village, which didn’t last very long but served as a meeting point for radical artists. By now, the early ‘50s, Cold War paranoia about Communist infiltration among artists was in full effect. Belafonte’s growing profile would eventually land him on that radar, although not to the devastating impact Robeson and others suffered.

Things finally took off for Belafonte after his first film, 1953’s Bright Road. That was part of a mini-wave of “message” films that attempted to shed some light, however briefly or low-wattage, on black life. Belafonte’s co-star was Dorothy Dandridge; both of them were featured as nightclub stars rather than serious actors in the film’s publicity. He would go on to co-star with Dandridge in the history-making Carmen Jones film from 1954, and play a central role in the sexually- and racially-charged 1957 film, Island in the Sun. The experiences broadened his commercial appeal, but Hollywood’s racial reluctance chafed at his radical instincts.

Belafonte found greater freedom in his nightclub performances, in which he sang all manner of people’s music: folk, spirituals, a little jazz, and even some calypso. It took a while for his magnetism and cultural awareness to be captured in the recording studio, but when that happened, it broadened Belafonte’s mass appeal. In 1955, he began collaborating with folklorist and songwriter Irving Burgie, who was deep into study of Caribbean music at the time. Their first effort was a TV special that fall spotlighting such music, featuring Belafonte’s first performance of a Jamaican work song, “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)”. The album they recorded the next year, Harry Belafonte: Calypso, became a million-seller, and “Day-O” his signature hit.

Smith sheds considerable light on Belafonte’s relatively unheralded efforts as a film producer in the late ‘50s. He was not able to break many barriers, either artistically or commercially. The World, the Flesh and the Devil (from 1957) and Odds against Tomorrow (from 1959), both featuring Belafonte in integrated casts, were probably ahead of their time in anticipating how much racial equity white movie-goers were willing to tolerate. But Belafonte was ahead of his time as well, a forerunner to the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Spike Lee and other indie black filmmakers since the ‘80s.

Belafonte was still a big enough star to merit prime-time television specials, produced on his exacting terms. Tonight with Belafonte (1959) included folksinger Odetta and dancer Arthur Mitchell, with Belafonte setting a Langston Hughes poem to song. He followed that with New York 19, a paean to both the city’s cultural diversity and the presence of black music throughout American life. Future specials would showcase the vitality of Harlem in the ‘20s (The Strollin’ 20s) and the depth and range of black comedy (A Time for Laughter). The former included Duke Ellington and Sammy Davis Jr., the latter Redd Foxx and a young Richard Pryor.

While creating, producing and performing in all these vehicles, Belafonte insistently advocated for equity on the screen: both for the opportunity for black performers to get work, and for that work to be in projects and roles that would inform and inspire. He had yet another chance to put his words into action in February 1968, when he guest-hosted The Tonight Show for a week. Among the guests he booked: Aretha Franklin and Petula Clark; the Smothers Brothers and Nipsey Russell; Paul Newman and Poitier; Sen. Robert Kennedy and King.

What’s clear from Smith’s research is that, from the very beginning, Belafonte never sought to keep his politics separate from his art (that’s even clearer from reading his 2011 memoir My Story). For him, art and activism had always been intertwined. If anything, the balance shifted in favor of activism as the years moved on; his artistic profile in the ‘70s and beyond lessened, but his political profile continued to grow.

At 89 years young, he still had it. In October 2016 produced its first music gala. “Many Rivers to Cross: A Festival of Music, Art & Justice” brought together musicians as diverse as Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews and Ty Dolla Sign, and activists including Angela Davis, Shaka Senghor and Van Jones, for two days of social justice culture and conversation in rural Georgia. Jesse Williams was there too, along with fellow Sankofa advisory board member Danny Glover, John Legend and other celebrities unafraid of using their talent and notoriety to fight the power.

For many years, that work was risky – just ask Robeson or any other artist who’s ever been blacklisted. But this seems to be a different moment, with artists of color gaining prominence for making work that speaks boldly against injustice. It’s a good bet to say this generation knows Belafonte more as an activist than a star, or maybe as a star because of his activism. But no matter what they know of his backstory, he is their direct bridge to Robeson, and thus to long and proud traditions both cultural and political.

Indeed, Belafonte was in the audience for Williams’ speech, and has spent every dime of his cultural capital saying something along these very lines:

There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There is no tax they haven’t leveed against us — and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free.

Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.

– Harry Belafonte

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on PopMatters on 18 October 2016.