Eighty six year old legend, Harry Belafonte has lived a life dedicated to harnessing the power of the arts for the greater good. No other artist from the 20th century has been so focused on this task. From his work as cultural advisor for the Kennedy administration, his incredible support of Dr King and the Civil Rights movement, the anti- apartheid movement to UNICEF and women’s rights, his work in activism is ongoing. One of the most successful African American pop stars in history, he gained notoriety for bringing Caribbean-style music to an international audience. With six Gold records, his breakthrough album, “Calypso” was the first million selling album by a solo artist in 1956. Belafonte has won three Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. In 1989 he received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s very exciting to be able to talk with you today. I have so many questions about your views on the arts and civic engagement. It’s absolutely fascinating that you were the Cultural Advisor to the Peace Corps, under JFK. What did that entail?
HARRY BELAFONTE: It entailed telling the world that the Peace Corps was a new dimension to American foreign policy. We could send weaponry, we could send food, we could send soldiers, we could send spies, but very rarely did we think about sending human beings to work with, and to help fellow human beings. It was powerful and important – this idea that we could call up volunteers – the volunteer spirit of the American citizens to come with their skills and their best foot forward and go into the most remote parts of our planet. Volunteers could go into villages and go into places where people had no knowledge as to what the outside world had to offer. They could work with these communities and develop them and teach them to read and to write and new techniques on how to do different types of agriculture and land preservation. As a foreign policy component I thought that it was our best foot forward politically. All of our other adventures, especially at that time when we were just beginning to get caught up in the web of the Vietnamese intrigue – as many of us thought that was a terrible place for us to be – coming out of the war with Korea, coming out of the second World War, to be in a constant rhythm of aggression…saving our policy around military intervention, the consequences needed to be balanced.
I had been an advisor to Kennedy before that on his racial issues and civil rights when he became President. There were a number of things being done in his administration, and he called me in one day and asked me if I’d be interested in working with the Peace Corps.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Is there anything similar to that now that you are doing in terms of that type of global, cultural outreach?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Everything I do is like that. I spend endless hours in the service of UNICEF, United Nations Children’s Fund. The second only American that ever worked in that capacity, The Founder of the Goodwill Ambassador Corps for the United Nations, was a man named Danny Kaye. And Danny gave of himself, for the children and did many spirited things. He created the use of celebrity to work on behalf of children who were being crucified by our policies, I mean globally, not just in America. And we got caught up in doing Peace Corps work and UNICEF work and just doing things that deal with global humanity.
CHRISTINA LESSA: We don’t hear a lot about UNICEF any more. When I was a little girl you heard about UNICEF all the time. Why are they no longer at the forefront of public awareness?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Because they were smart enough never to permit commercial and industrial power to take over their image and to use them as exploitation for the sale of goods and commerce. I think that any institution that’s on a social campaign and does not want to be caught in that space, is necessarily crowded out of the public debate, the public discourse. Not enough time on the air for us unless you’re being sponsored by another major company in which they can sell their product through your endeavor.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I’d like to talk to you about the role of artists in terms of social change and philanthropy because that’s a very big part of our mission at FLATT. You said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth and inspire us to see ourselves on a higher level. With great art comes great responsibility and power … it forces people to listen when artists engage in public enlightenment because we are already in their psyche.” I thought your comment was brilliant.
HARRY BELAFONTE: With great art comes responsibility, but more importantly, with great public response to art I think we then, have a responsibility.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So how do you use that captive audience that you’ve acquired to make a change? That’s the question…
HARRY BELAFONTE: It’s very simple. When I came into the world of the arts what attracted me was a play that I saw. I’d never seen theatre before, I’d just come out of the Second World War, and I was looking for the rewards to the conquering hero. When black troops came back to America we expected the democracy to be ours – no racial supremacy charging the air – there’d be a level playing field. And when we came back there was not a level playing field. Black people still didn’t have the right to vote. We didn’t have the right to equal opportunity. We had powerful segregationist laws throughout America that said if you’re black, you can’t sit here. If you’re Negro, you can’t do this…and in fact, many servicemen coming out of the Second World War who were black and challenged those laws were lynched, and there was a huge campaign with the Klu Klux Klan and others. “Putting niggers back in their place,” was the slogan, and I was looking for where to go with my life in the midst of that absence of a franchise. By coincidence, I went to a play. I was given tickets to the theatre as a janitor’s assistant, as a gratuity for doing a service. I went to see a play – first time I’d ever seen a play – and I saw actors talking and the subject matter was about a war and the things they said were extremely enlightening and challenging. The environment was something I’d never seen.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What play was it?
HARRY BELAFONTE: It was called, “Home is the Hunter,” that was the name of the play. And it was a play on returning black servicemen. It was in a theatre up in Harlem that was just being started. And in that theatre I met Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee – beautiful artists – and I decided that this was the environment that I wanted to be in. I had no idea what I would do, I said I could be an actor. A lot of people ask me, “When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?” It’s the wrong turn of the question. I was an activist who became an artist.
When I saw the theatre, I understood the power of language and that there you had a platform where people were vulnerable, and listening, and willing. I felt that when I got my time as a singer, as a performer and in films that I chose to do, I would use that platform because all that I knew about art was that it was an instrument that informed you socially. I studied at The New School of Social Research, where I went to look at the higher forms of the art… I walked in and my first day in the classroom I saw Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger and Bea Arthur and Tony Curtis, I could go on and on … it was an incredible group of young people who were just thinking they wanted to be into theatre. Piscator came from Germany with the Max Reinhardt theatre and Bertolt Brecht, and great intellectuals were part of that group.
That movement was very anti-fascist, very against Hitler, and chose plays that authors like Gorky and Luigi Pirandello gave us. We were looking at all the hope and looking at the great works of Shakespeare and stuff at that school…so every time I looked at a work of art or looked at theatre everything was….what does Shakespeare talk about? Cruelty of the monarch and intrigue at court and language that speaks to our humanity.
All the great songs are about what we are and what we do to each other. So in that inclination everything I was weaned on, the
During a party at the home of movie executive Arthur Krim, US President John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) (left) speaks with singer Harry Belafonte (center) and his wife, dancer Julie Robinson, New York, New York, May 19, 1962. The party followed a democratic fundraiser at Madison Square Garden honoring John F. Kennedy’s birthday where actress Marilyn Monroe famously sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ (Photo by Cecil Stoughton/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)142
songs that I loved most came from Woody Guthrie, came from Leadbelly, came from the American folk origins and all those songs were about “this land is your land,” “America, let us be.” So in that environment and in that instant I just said, “As long as I have this platform I’ll let the world see a mirror of itself.” So, I reached out to other artists like Miriam Makeba and Nana Mouskouri and gave Bob Dylan his first shot at recording, and stuff like that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What an incredible impact you’ve had as an artist..
HARRY BELAFONTE: And an incredible journey.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I am acutely aware of the violence in our culture right now and it’s something that distresses me a great deal. Recently you made a few statements and I know that they have been attached to the hip-hop world to create sensationalism from the media. I’d rather not discuss hip-hop per se, but rather the outcome of living in a society where violence has become our main form of entertainment, unless you disagree with that. Where movies and books and things like “the Hunger Games” pit child against child and have become the most popular events – this is true, among children as young as 6 or seven.. Why do you think that that’s happening now?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think that America has lost its moral compass and I don’t think it’s just an American phenomenon. I think there’s a global inclination towards that which feeds the dark side of the human character, the human spirit. Everybody embraces violence – it’s the solution to everything. It’s wherever you go. It’s in all cultures, not just in America. You go down to Brazil, or go to a lot of the Islands, go to countries – there are tribal wars, regional wars, political conflict. You look at what men do to women, violence against women, and the incredible experience women have as part of the human experience in our journey. There is a propensity for that and when you’re able to extract profit from that canvas of expression then sometimes the villain and the villainy runs unabated. It’s just out there.
So it seems everything you look at is violent. Commercials are violent: you can look at a simple commercial… I have to hear a big crash, and the smash, and something violent to grab my attention. Or they are doing the same thing, and the next thing you see is an attractive woman slithering across a motorcar. What she has to do with selling the car is about her sexuality and the depravity of putting everything into this animal zone. So when I hear songs that talk about “bitch” and “whore” and “motherfucka” and “I’ll shoot you,” I find them a violation of a greater morality, of a greater purpose for our being here. I think that there is so much beauty, and so much goodness that can be derived from what human beings have done. We’ve been a model to ourselves for what kindness does, and what honorable things do for people, but we have not been able to monetize that… not been able to turn that into major profit. I assure you, that if I reached out to you and made you whole and brought goodness into your space and I got a million dollars to do that, everybody would be a millionaire.
We have never been able to translate that part of our character into something that is bankable. People ask me what do I think is the greatest flaw in the American character – and I say it is greed. We are a very greedy people. We could say we’re generous, and reach out – there’s that aspect to us – but it is not what dominates us.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Yes, I agree.
HARRY BELAFONTE: We conquer everything. We put a price on everything. What’s the bottom line? If you don’t have all those things in play, you become irrelevant.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So you said that if this could reverse artistically, then society would change for the better, but how can we make that change? From your experience on this planet, do you see this as a particular period in the ebb and flow of culture? Have you experienced something similar to this before? I mean, if we talk about pre-civil rights… That’s a very violent time. I don’t know that we could equate this period to that period particularly, but do you see a cycle?
HARRY BELAFONTE: There are aspects of this period that could be equated to civil rights. There are aspects that can be identified as reversing some of the gains of civil rights. We have laws – just approved by the Supreme Court – that have begun to chip away at the voting rights of black people. We have all sorts of laws being juggled and gerrymandered to prevent blacks and older people and others from voting. Now we – America – have a prison population that’s the largest of any in the world. We build more prisons than schools. What are we saying here? What is your projection for how you see the future if you’re building more prisons than you’re building schools? Look at us here in New York. We’re shutting down healthcare systems everywhere to put up condos, to put up high priced housing.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Yes, unfortunately.
HARRY BELAFONTE: All these values. So whether you are in the civil rights movement or this movement, there are still parallels. Before the civil rights movement this country was in a Great Depression, nobody was eating, everybody was busted, down and out, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Roosevelt, just before that was the antebellum period just coming out of the Civil War, which was a huge conflict in this country.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So it is cyclical. There is hope.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Absolutely.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Where is the ‘up’? Do you see positive change stemming from something in particular?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I’m not quite sure. If you’d have asked me this when I was 30, or even when I was 60, I might have said unabashedly there’s no question that we’re headed in the right direction and I know that. Now I’m looking more cautiously. I’m looking at it more critically, at whether or not as a species we will survive. ‘Cause we are what’s evident in the little social definitions I’ve just given you.
The fact is, and we know it, we’re destroying all life, not just ours. If you look at the climate change, if you look at all the things that are going on, if you’re looking at all the toxic forces in our life, not just in what’s in the air from carbon monoxide and stuff like that…but also the preservatives we put in our food. It’s all chipping away at us. While on the one hand we seem to be living longer, the question is are we living better? All of these parts interlink. If you’re destroying the oceans, if you’re destroying the food supply, if you’re chipping away at mountains, if you toxify everything and then you’ve also got guns and you’re shooting… You’ve got all these laws that say it’s ok to be part of social mayhem, how do you get optimism going here? When you look at institutions that were created by man to lead man along a moral truth, a moral path to a higher order… Well, that instrument becomes the basis for human conflict: Islam fighting Christianity, the extremes of both faiths fighting terrorists and people who do incredible things. When those institutions collapse and their moral fabric is now tainted towards interests that are not as humane, as they have stated in scripture, then I think we have to take notice. I did a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People…NAACP Image Awards, the biggest black event in culture –it’s our Academy Awards. It’s our Grammys and it’s all black. Everybody was there. I was given a very high honor that’s created by the NAACP. In my speech I challenged all the artists, and I said, “While we sit here in this ceremony, pleased at what we’ve put out…nobody pays attention to the fact that the streets of America flow with the blood of our children, that there are more murders and more killings – thousands a year, not hundreds, not dozens, but thousands of young people are shot in our streets. So while white America talks
about the Constitutional right to own a gun, nobody speaks to the moral dilemma. We’re killing each other in humongous numbers, and nobody seems to care.” To the black artists, sitting down there getting all those trophies I said, “Where is your voice? Where is your song?”
Take a look at what happened that night, because it’s all on film. Jamie Foxx got up on stage and just tore up his speech and essentially said, “I’ve got no place to go. I haven’t done enough and I’ve been part of what Mr. Belafonte said, it’s our problem.” And the next day he was down here in New York, just flew in, to become part of Trayvon Martin’s rally, and went on Jay Leno and began to sing “Day…o.” – this is not about me. He just caught the spirit by admitting publicly, “I’ve been absent.”
CHRISTINA LESSA: But don’t you think therein lies the hope, because of the way technology operates, we can spread these messages with such speed and volume. So, if we create awareness and we make an impact. We’re not necessarily as well organized as they used to be. It’s not like the civil rights movement. It’s not like other types of protests, but we do have this incredible ability to go viral.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Well organized or not I can’t throw them away because even Occupy Wall Street is a movement. I mean there are those who are our detractors and would have you think it is a fleeting, faltering moment. Well, Jesus Christ if you took a look at how many civil rights movements there were before the Civil Rights Movement you’d understand it is a process requiring courage and undying determination to avoid failure. We’ve been fighting ever since the Civil War to get rid
of segregation and to get the right to vote. We had one century of activity in this country, by abolitionists, by really good white folk and good black folk and we’ve come together time and time and time again, until finally we had a moment, when Dr. King stepped in and something new happened. The coincidences of war caught us, and now, yeah, we have Occupy Wall Street, we have the Women’s Movement and One Billion Rising…We have all sorts of innovations, such as the Dream Defenders down in Florida, look at those kids. It’s all there, and it is finding another moment to become the thing we think we’ve lost. We haven’t lost it completely. We are hunting for it.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I think it’s just a period of transition. Personally, you know I have children, so maybe I’m more optimistic about it right now and I see…my son is sixteen and my daughter is ten so there’s a gap between them and I see two different generations who don’t know black and white. They don’t think about it like that. They have a completely different opinion about what it means to be gay or straight, or any race, it’s not there for them, it’s invisible. Children today, if given the resources, have a much deeper understanding of the world.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Let me ask you something. If you were to take the average family in America, and say to them, “Have you ever talked about Nelson Mandela at the dinner table with your kid?”
CHRISTINA LESSA: I couldn’t make an accurate assessment because I have no idea but I’m going to say many more than would have, twenty years ago. I think that because of technology information flows differently.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Information flows differently…
CHRISTINA LESSA: Information, yes…
HARRY BELAFONTE: But education is pretty much stuck where it was in the 12th century.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I don’t agree with you. A child who is able to seek out information independently … for that child, it’s an incredible time. If you teach your child to love to learn from the start, and I think that more parents now are doing that, the child can be almost independent of the parental influence at this point, able to make their own assessments at a certain point.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I feel it’s a little romantic.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s hopeful.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think that’s reaching for a vision we would like to have. The truth of the matter is that most kids tune in to pornography, most kids tune in to violence. Most kids tune in to all of the games that are out there being invented so rapidly for destruction. That’s the main dial. I’m not saying that what you’re observing doesn’t exist, there are aspects of that in slices of social opportunity in the suburbs, in the nice little villages, but in the hard core of America, you got Appalachia, and ask the people down there, the white folks living in the mines, in the hills of West Virginia…
CHRISTINA LESSA: Well that’s an isolated interpretation.
HARRY BELAFONTE: That’s America.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Yes, I agree. I agree. But Chicago is also America.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes! But Chicago is no better than Appalachia.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I agree with you, but only to a very small degree. I’m in the visual arts world primarily, that’s where I come from – I was a painter originally – and I follow most of our cultural development through those eyes, and I see that the way that type of public outreach has developed since I was much younger, and the outreach casts such a broad net. I am very hopeful and optimistic about all of this.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Then in the context in which you’re speaking explain the Tea Party to me.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I couldn’t make an accurate assessment because I have no idea but I’m going to say many more than would have, twenty years ago. I think that because of technology information flows differently.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Why can’t you explain them?
CHRISTINA LESSA: Because they are of a violent group, or a non-thinking group that will always exist. I think that in human nature we will always have ignorance, we will always have violence, and those types of things will always arise out of past cycles of ignorance and violence. But I think that the median of society has become more informed. And I think that’s important. I think that hopefully those will become the educators of the future, and they will cast a broader net. This is just my opinion. But that’s my optimistic approach to what’s happening and of course, we have a much larger population now so there is more violence and more ignorance and all of these things are compounded.
HARRY BELAFONTE: OK, I feel optimistic about things yet to be, but I take a little different approach. I am more inundated by the violence and where I see the global society drifting which is destroying the planet by all of the interlocking devices that make up human beings, and human behavior and I don’t see that we’re coming to a place of great enlightenment. I think that we would like to think that, I think that we hope for that, but I don’t think in practice it’s what’s happening. There is a division – it may not be “niggers” here and “white folks” here in a sign that sits in your face, but when I look at the hip-hop culture – I’m fascinated by how many white kids, as a matter of fact, make up the backbone of that art form.
And I think in that context, there’s something shaping up in the human character – I look at China, a billion-and-a-half people who are on their way to being violent because they’re creating these class divisions that didn’t exist before. Because it is overthrowing something that was evil in the beginnings of this monolithic communist oppressive state – but in the process of liberation it’s going to another place. There are more middle class people in the last 25 years and it took us 200 years to become who we are, they’ve got over 300 million people who are richer than the entire American population, and yet there is
no force in the midst of that growth, in the midst of that expansion that puts a moral definition on where society goes and what it does. I don’t need another motorcar; I mean you’re telling me that I must surrender my soul to the devil to achieve that image of advancement? I don’t need to be, I don’t need to know about what’s going on in the outer regions of space if I am losing my soul. What people say they’re doing in the name of human advancement is really more in the name of exploitation, really, because the things that drive our technology, all these things that you’ve referred to were originally put there by the Pentagon, all these satellites that went up. It was about war, it was about becoming more sophisticated. The fact that somewhere it served aspects of the human need, is an extension, or a parallel moment. It was not its intention. And when you look at this, most of this stuff that we have is a lot about how the military has chosen to use it and to push that paradigm, to push that budget – the largest budget in the American economic scheme is the military budget.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Let’s talk about music. I’m looking at the younger generations and what’s coming up, which is really a lot of electronic music and cultural crossovers. They don’t fall under the category of hip-hop, rather, they fall more under the category of electronic music – they don’t really have any other specific category other than that. People that are composing their own music and combining classicism with techno pop, and those are definitely mixed audiences. I see a lot of that, under 30 I’d say, under 30 and younger. So that is a positive thing. If you saw those audiences you would be surprised.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Well, contrary to what might be public opinion, I spend most of my time with the young.
The point that I’m making is I see what’s going on in culture, I see transformations, I see new alliances, but that’s not new – there’s nothing terribly unique about that. Before we had country western music there was the Irish jig, and when that Irish jig came here and found itself melted willingly or unwillingly with a bunch of Africans out there beatin’ drums and makin’ ooba ooba, all of a sudden these things integrate and they become part of a human expression. Art is in a constant state of change, not just because of technology – technology might give you volume, might give you space, but in the final analysis its still a human being that has to think it, that has to create it, that has to paint it. The selection is still in the hands of our humanity; we define what comes out at the other end.
The fact is that you have more people of color in America than ever existed. The white thing is being pushed to a new border, but even that will eventually integrate itself into whatever…I was talking to my grandchildren the other day, and I said pretty soon –you better enjoy this moment — because pretty soon we’re all going to be some sort of shades of brown, and then they’ll have another reason to hate each other because color will not be a tool any longer. But there’s that characteristic in the human creation…On what basis do you choose morality? How do you define good and evil…how does one? What is it about us that makes us have an instinct for what’s good and for what’s bad? Just religion? Just the teachings of Christ, or Mohammed or Buddha? There’s something in the human character, the human species, that’s inundated by forces and things we know nothing about and I’m eager to find that out. I’m not anguished by it, but I’m puzzled by it. I’m curious about it. You know when Christ walked the Earth there was no church. He didn’t have a church. He spoke in villages, he spoke by the mountainside, he spoke by the river, the Dead Sea, and wherever he caught a person who was willing to listen, he gave them a speech, and all of a sudden it evolved into this thing that is now adorned by temples, and stained glass windows, and each person spewing out their own point of view as the only point of view, and creating these new hurdles for humanity. But what is the component that makes us have this selection process? How do we know what’s good and how do we know what’s…why do we know what’s good, and why do we know what’s evil? And what is the instinct, and why doesn’t that dominate? And if you look at the totality of man’s evolution, maybe it has dominated, maybe the reason that we’re sitting here talking is because the good has prevailed, despite all the evil that suffocates us..don’t you agree?
CHRISTINA LESSA: Absolutely one hundred percent. I’m curious to know what you’re thinking about now with your work, are you thinking about anything in terms of being an artist these days?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Everything I think about is being an artist. Everything I do is to integrate the power of art in my mission. I met with Eve Ensler the other day. When she came she has this – February 15th I think it is – Valentine’s Day annual event for women and we sat and talked and she was trying to press some of us into service, and she evoked the thought that men should do more, and I said “Why don’t we make men do more?” So now in my relationship with De Blasio, and with New York and with culture and with all the things we have we’re now embarking on putting on one of the greatest cultural expressions of man up, of violence against women and the men’s role in creating…we’ve already put a lot of money now – just starting – into creating documentaries, films, specifically historic and present events showing man’s cruelty to women, and women being forced into some subservience that has become so natural to our cultures that we see women only as tools of some second class dimension. So when Eve came and spoke about that, and yeah, I did it with Bruce and Dave Matthews and with Carlos Santana and a bunch of black guys and everybody and when I get through, I’ll do what I did before, I’ll have another We are the World…I’ll do what I did before. I’ll have another part of another civil rights movement so [that a lot of artists show up – that they were ]Dr. King’s I have a dream..and make sure that the artist’s community has a presence, they’re saying things that can be done artfully, and making films and songs and going to a lot of guys and getting them to write a song from a man’s perspective on men’s violence against women and making an anthem.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Much needed, long overdue. Violence, and other unspeakable abuses toward women have become so ingrained in society it’s as if they are over looked unless the results are beyond catastrophic..and even then those transgressions prevail. I truly believe that we will never have peace until equality becomes second nature. That’s a very long road.
HARRY BELAFONTE: It is but we will fight to get there. I’d also like to create a record company to be able to distribute that since none of the existing institutions please us. But to that extent I fell away from the performing arts because the stroke took its toll, that’s why I’m so happy that my mental faculties are all there, and Tony Bennett’s a little older than I am, but I’m 87 and I sit. Most of my time is spent talking to him, and women around 30…or below…
CHRISTINA LESSA: (laughter)
HARRY BELAFONTE: No really I’m talking about my daily activity…up in the communities, traveling around, in the prison systems here in New York, and looking at justice and talking with De Blasio during the campaign, and going after the Koch brothers and all the stuff, and all the mischief I do.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Thank you so much, Harry.
HARRY BELAFONTE: My Great Pleasure.