Rebel With A Cause
Call him an activist, an artist, or even the King of Calypso. Nicknames aside, Zoomer cover man Harry Belafonte remains a tireless champion for those who cannot help themselves. A consummate supporter of humanitarian causes, as well as a legendary performer, we salute Belafonte as he turns 86 on March 1. Read Zoomer magazine’s May 2011 cover story on Belafonte below.
Singer, actor, activist and legend Harry Belafonte never shies from controversy or a cause that needs him. This month, as he joins forces with The Stephen Lewis Foundation for a star-studded benefit, He speaks with Elisa Birnbaum about what keeps him fighting on.
The episode also included Belafonte’s original piece “Turn the World Around.” Requested by Jim Henson who wanted music that delved into African culture, the song was performed in prototypical Henson-style, replete with harmonizing Muppets dressed as African tribal masks. It was a seminal moment for the Muppets and the televised medium as educational portals for cultural diversity. It was also one of the show’s most popular episodes and, reportedly, Henson’s favourite. So strong was Henson’s affinity for the song, in fact, that Belafonte would honour the man at his 1990 funeral with another moving rendition.
When you think about it, “Turn the World Around” is an apt summation of Harold George Belafonte, singer, actor, social activist. The lyrics are simple yet profound: “Do you know who I am; Do I know who you are; See we one another clearly; Do we know who we are.” Yet they underlie his life-long philosophy: without understanding and accepting each other, peaceful coexistence is a long shot. He infused the song with added depth at Henson’s memorial, crediting the creative genius with forging a more just world.
That overarching world view (in pursuit of tolerance, inclusivity and social justice) would inspire every single, deliberate step in Belafonte’s life – from the songs he sang to the movie roles he chose and the social causes he engaged in. The calypso music, for example, a genre for which he was most celebrated, was “not only something that could entertain you but also something that could inform you about social experiences, social conditions, struggle,” he explains.
You think the “Banana Boat Song” represented a simple ditty about fruit? Think again. “As much as people delighted in it, if you listen to it carefully, it’s a song that talks about the pain of plantation living, how gruelling the work is, how difficult it is, what you’re subjected to in that working environment,” Belafonte says. “Island in the Sun,” meanwhile, spoke about people struggling against a system of colonialism. “So much of what the lyrics are about is buried in metaphor,” he says. “If you don’t understand the metaphor, you miss the deeper meaning of the lyrics.”
It was through UNICEF that he became acquainted with Stephen Lewis. The former Ontario NDP leader and Canada’s United Nation’s Ambassador who went on to become deputy executive director of UNICEF and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV-AIDS. Lewis is currently chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and co-director of U.S.-based AIDS-Free World, and has devoted much of his life to the cause of HIV-AIDS. And Belafonte is a most devoted fan.
“To me, he’s one of the great intellects and articulators,” he says. “I just loved being around him, listening to him talk, help shape ideas and bring solutions to grave questions.”
The admiration is mutual. “I knew of him then as I do now – as someone of enormous principle, radical and progressive views, articulate and extraordinary influence,” says Lewis. It came as no surprise that when Lewis invited Belafonte to join him in Toronto on May 3 for the Globe and Mail Roundtable: Philanthropy for Hope and Impact, a discussion on the role of philanthropy in the fight against AIDS, he was quick to accept. “When anybody mentions Lewis’s name, you don’t have to worry about me; the answer is yes,” Belafonte laughs.
Belafonte’s commitment to activism is steeped in history, his own and that of the civil rights movement. Born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York, Belafonte was sent at the age of two by his mother, Melvine Love, to live in her hometown of Aboukir in Saint Ann, Jamaica. He remained there for close to 10 years under the watchful eye of his grandmother.
“She instilled in me so many things that would later turn out to be part of my value system and shape the way I thought and felt about things,” he says. For one thing, she imparted an incredible sense of survival, having faced the adversity of poverty head on while raising her children and grandchildren with dignity intact. These early years would also form the basis of Belafonte’s affinity with Caribbean culture and an appreciation for cultural diversity – both of which he would later cultivate with great affection and success.
Returning to New York wasn’t easy for Belafonte. His West Indian heritage made him stand out among his newfound neighbours, causing him to be the target of much teasing. But he stood strong. “Whatever difficulties were endured in the face of that fact, later on came to reward me,” he explains, “because, in the well of that experience, I was able to draw so much and shape my artistic interest.”
Belafonte initially dreamed only of being an actor. Singing was simply a means of funding the acting classes led by German director Erwin Piscator at The Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York with classmates Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and Sydney Poitier. But you could say his musical destiny of greatness was written on the proverbial wall when Belafonte’s first gig was accompanied by none other than the Charlie Parker band, featuring Parker himself, Max Roach and Miles Davis.
Of course, being a citizen of the world comes with heightened responsibility. And Belafonte has never been one to back down from that either. His is a life hell-bent on pushing boundaries, never settling for what’s easy, what’s expected or fashionable. Here’s a man who stands up for what he believes and speaks his mind freely.
To be sure, sometimes his words and actions can venture toward the controversial. The social activist threw caution and critics to the wind, for example, when he befriended Fidel Castro, opposed the U.S. Cuban embargo and the Grenada invasion and publicly criticized President George W. Bush and America’s foreign policy. He led a delegation to meet Hugo Chavez to show his support of the Venezuelan president’s rejected offer to provide Americans with cheaper heating oil. And that’s just the tip of the divisive iceberg. No doubt about it, Belafonte can be a polarizing figure but he’s okay with it. He’s never shied from controversy before and he’s not about to start now.
Belafonte credits three individuals with inspiring his political activism: Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and African-American performer and activist Paul Robeson, iconic figures that leave one’s revolutionary spirit salivating. Often referring to Robeson as his mentor, Belafonte reminisces on how the singer-actor-athlete-activist gave him enduring advice: “’You’re on a great journey, just remember this,’ he began. ‘Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.’” Powerful words.
So powerful, in fact, Belafonte chose the phrase for the title of an upcoming documentary on his life, Sing Your Song. Directed by Susanne Rostock, produced by Canadian rock concert and Broadway impresario Michael Cohl, and Belafonte’s daughter Gina, among others, it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and HBO recently acquired its U.S. television rights.
The title describes his life to a T, he explains, metaphorically and literally. “I sang my song both musically and socially; who I am is on the table and a lot of people came to it approvingly,” he says. “And in that approval, I was given a solid platform on which to launch my mission [for] social development, activism and the things I did politically.” To those who ask when he made the life-changing transition toward activism, Belafonte is quick to reply: “Let’s put it this way: I’m not an artist who became an activist; I’m an activist who became an artist.”