Tag Archives: Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte and social activism

belafonte-king

In a 2001 interview, Harry Belafonte discussed the relationships between his career choices and social activism.

“I wanted to use some cunning and find a way to introduce an art form into an environment that was extremely limited—to be able to make a social and political statement to listeners without them suspecting it.”

“There was a conscious awareness of how hostile the environment was, and how clever you’d have to be to outsmart the predator. So there was selection and choice. But there was never compromise in the content. The fact is that I didn’t sing a lot of protest songs back then because most of that material had been written or covered by others, and because I saw another way to move my image and my cause through the ranks of the human family.”

“I think that black culture commands a global audience because of the sheer power of it, the beauty of it—it is hard to dismiss. And because it brings so much delight, it can easily be embraced. The physical presence of black people, however, is something else: it reflects a history of oppression that white people don’t want to deal with, not because they wouldn’t like to see the oppression go away, but they don’t want to pay the price for it to be gone.”

“Black people are going to have to understand that the issue here is more than race. We are the souls, we are the people that must save the soul of this nation.”

Quoted in “Remains of the day-o: A conversation with Harry Belafonte” by Michael Eldridge (Transition XII/92 [2002] pp. 110–137; reprinted in Da Capo best music writing 2004 [Cambridge: Da Capo, 2004] pp. 68–92).

Today is Belafonte’s 90th birthday! Above, with Martin Luther King, Jr.; below, performing in 1997.

Related article: Mr. Belafonte and Dr. King

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Mr. Belafonte and Dr. King

In 1968 Johnny Carson stunned the entertainment world by inviting a black man to fill in for him. For a full week in February Harry Belafonte hosted the Tonight Show, showcasing numerous other black celebrities—not least, his friend and fellow civil-rights advocate Martin Luther King, Jr.

After relaxing the audience with a joke, Dr. King discussed serious public and personal matters. When Belafonte asked if he feared for his life, he responded “If something happens to me, maybe something good will come of it.” He was assassinated two months later .

This according to “Belafonte’s balancing act” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The New Yorker 26 August & 2 September 1996, pp. 133–43). Below, Belafonte recalls the evening in an interview with Tavis Smiley.

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Filed under Black studies, Politics, Popular music