Saturday, September 30, 2006

Reflections on The Life and Art of Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte

By Norman (Otis) Richmond

Harry Belafonte continues to be in the vanguard of Black artists who stand on the side of the oppressed. Belafonte is featured in Spike Lee’s new documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts. He also gave a thought- provoking interview to the BBC. The LIMERS e-group recently had a fruitful discussion about this dialogue.

“The artist elects to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice! I had no alternative!” was the immortal Paul Robeson’s mantra.

It is the same for Belafonte. I have always had the greatest respect for Belafonte. Both were shining examples of Pan-Africanism and internationalism. He has been a bridge connecting African people from home and aboard. It was Belafonte who arranged for members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to visit the freshly independent West African nation of Guinea. He felt they were on the verge of burning out and he wanted to prevent this.

Belafonte is the closest example to Robeson who was his role model. Belafonte like Robeson before him realized that art and culture are weapons in a people’s struggle to exist with dignity and peace. Robeson paid the supreme price for his stance against U.S. imperialism and global white supremacy. Robeson’s income dipped from $100,000 a year to a mere six thousand a year. Belafonte never the less still held up Robeson as his model for political and artistic excellence. Robeson was a friend of the Caribbean and Africa. He played in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, was published in the Jamaican Gleaner and was Afro-Centric before it came in vogue.

Belafonte like his main man understands that “Blackness is necessary but not sufficient”. He is pro-Cuba, pro-Venezuela and stands with working people around the planet. In the 20th century Robeson was called “The tallest tree in the forest.” In the 21st century this applies to the first artist to have a platinum album - Belafonte.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. pointed out in his volume entitled Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man: “The album Harry Belafonte – Calypso, released at the end of 1956, ended up selling more than a million-and-a-half copies, more than any single artist album ever had before, and it remained on the charts for a year-and-a-half. Elvis and Sinatra were big in 1957, yet Belafonte–-the King of Calypso, as he was touted-– outsold both of them. (With fetching modesty, Belafonte told one reporter, “I don’t want to be known as a guy who put the nail in the coffin of rock and roll”).

Sam Cooke considered Belafonte as one of his role models. Cooke admired Belafonte’s militancy, his business acumen and his ability to crossover into the lucrative Euro-American pop market without compromising his blackness. While still a member of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers he told fellow group member Paul Foster, “I want to be like (him).” He made this statement while pointing at a photo of Belafonte, whose calypso–flavoured “Banana Boat Song (Day-O) was on the current Top Ten.

Belafonte’s success was not applauded in all quarters. Daiann McLane a calypso scholar – and singer took Belafonte on. McLane was unimpressed by Belafonte; he referred to his music as “calypso with a conk.” Calypso purist problem with Belafonte was that he was too much of a singer and not a calysionian at all. While Belafonte and Sidney Poitier are best friends they have been known to duke it out from time to time. Poitier said this about his “key spare”. “He (Harry) can be the worst S.O.B. that God ever created. Harry Belafonte will do you in, up, down, and crossways in a minute. You’ve got to be terribly special to him to be excluded from his guillotine when he’s out for blood. But if he’s there for you, he’s there for you all the way.”

Belafonte’s image as the “King of Calypso” was the creation of the media. He has gone to great length to explain that he had no control over how RCA records promoted him, and has conceded that he wasn’t really a calypso singer. However, the S.O.B. in Belafonte has gone on record and said, “I’ll tell you, though, that I find that most of the culture coming out of Trinidad among calypso singers is not in the best interest of the people of the Caribbean community.”

“I think that it’s racist, because you sing to our own denunciation on color. You sing about our sexual power, and our gift of drinking, and rape, and all the things we do to which I have, and want, no particular claim. What I have sought to do with my art is take my understanding of the region and put it before people in a positive way. And doing these songs gives people another impression than the mythology they have that we’re all lazy, living out of a banana tree, fucking each other to death.”

Robeson came into conflict with many African nationalist and
Pan-Africanist for some of his film roles. Though Robeson publicly disowned Sanders of the River, Marcus Garvey, the outspoken Jamaican nationalist, still denounced the actor for "pleasing England by the gross slander and libel of the Negro". Belafonte did not wish to be criticised by his brethren and sistren over this issue. He took a hard-line on the film roles he accepted.

He turned down roles in Porgy and Bess, To Sir With Love and Lilies of the Field. He explained to Gates why he turned down the role in Lilies of the Field: “When I read Lilies of the Field, I was furious. You’ve got these nuns fleeing Communism, and out of nowhere is this black person who throws himself whole- heartedly into their service, saying nothing and doing nothing except being commanded by these Nazi nuns. He didn’t kiss anybody, he didn’t touch anybody, he had no culture, he had no history, he had no family, and he had nothing. I just said, ‘No, I don’t want to play pictures like that.’ What happened was Sidney Poitier stepped in – and got the Academy Award.”

Belafonte has pointed out that he and Poitier were both influenced by Robeson. However, “Belafonte points out without bitterness, ‘In the early days, Sidney participated in left affairs, but once he became anointed he gave it up'.”

The great African American director/actor Ivan Dixon told this writer that Robeson had consulted both Belafonte and Poitier to not let the system destroy them like they did him. Belafonte apparently didn’t listen as attentively as Poitier and took many risks by publicly attacking injustice world –wide. Belafonte was Martin Luther King’s chief fund-raiser. King summed up the position that all progressives including Belafonte came to believe: “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The author is a broadcast journalist and producer in Toronto at CKLN, FM 88.1. He can be heard on Diasporic Music on thursday from 8:00 -10:00 p.m. At 9:30 Abayomi Azikiwe, the editor of the Pan-African News Wire, can be heard in a joint segment with Norman (Otis) Richmond discussing music, politics and the overall world situation. Richmond can also be heard on Saturday Morning Live from 10:00 a.m.-1:00 and From Another Perspective on Sunday evening from 6:00-6:30 p.m. Norman (Otis) Richmond can be contacted by e-mail

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