The CultureMap Interview

Brilliant Belafonte: At 90, legendary singer and social activist looks to the future

Brilliant Belafonte: At 90, legendary singer/activist looks to future

Brilliant Lecture Series: Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte will be the featured guest at the 2017 Brilliant Lecture Series on Thursday night. Brilliant Lecture Series Courtesy Photo

Stage, screen, music and just overall American, icon Harry Belafonte might be turning 90 on March 1, but it will be Houston who receives a grand present Thursday (February 23), when the legendary artist celebrates, a little early, that major birthday with us as the first conversation of the 2017 Brilliant Lecture Series.

I had a chance to speak to the singer, actor and human rights advocate by phone in preparation for his Houston appearance and found a man ready and willing to speak of the past while always looking to the future.

A cursory glance at Belafonte’s entertainment and artistic resume finds a Tony, Emmy, multiple Grammys and the humanitarian Oscar. (Yes, he EGOT-ed). But a deeper look into his life reveals a man who was everywhere that mattered in the 20th century.

He served in the Navy in World War II and was on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement in the '60s. A friend and confident to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Belafonte was at the 1963 March on Washington and was one of the organizers of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. In later years, he originated the idea for the “We Are the World” benefit song, and has been an UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Always balancing artistry with advocacy, Belafonte remains a voice that challenges injustice wherever he sees it.

Speaking History for the Future

In talks and interviews, Belafonte is often asked to look to the past and share his perspective on the great moments of history he saw and participated in, but he says he doesn’t mind being asked about the past as much as his present and his future projects because they’re “all mixed together.”

“So many people know so little about their history. They know nothing about the civil rights movement. They know very little about the leaders of that movement,” he told me, explaining why he values reminiscing for audiences. “In order for me to suggest that there’s something that we can do, it’s importance for them to remember and to recall what it is that we did.”

Belafonte has never been one to concentrate on his art, whether that be music or acting, without pairing that art with activism. I asked him if he thought it was his duty as a successful artist to work for social justice.

“I don’t know that’s it a duty, as that it’s an expectation. You can use the platform of art to try to inform. I happen to like using the platform to introduce people to things they may not have heard of before.”

He’s found that instead of audiences rejecting his activism, perhaps asking only for entertainment stories, they have embraced it.

“I’m going to be 90 years old in a few days, and it’s fascinating to me that the public still has interest on hearing me comment on the world at large. I’m grateful for the platform, but I don’t think many artists use their platform to speak socially or politically, and I think audiences need that.”

In Belafonte’s view neither the artist nor audience can afford to grow complacent.

“If they’re indifferent, they pay a price for not much political or social consciousness among people’s daily lives. They take the subject of politics very casually, and as a consequence they keep electing people who are never really speaking out for the best interest of the constituency.”

Still on the March

Even at almost 90, neither the artists nor activist sides of Belafonte appear to be slowing down. He was an honorary co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington and even an advisor to the organizers, though temporary illness kept him from Washington the day of the March. 

“When the women decided that they wanted to demonstrate, they called,” said Belafonte and when I asked his assessment of the day throughout the country, he gave a succinct but passionate response: “I thought it was quite remarkable.”

While the ideas and issues that fuel political activism might have commonalities with those of the 1960s and '70s, the way people organize these days has certainly changed, but when I asked Belafonte about the use of social media for organization, it became clear he’s easily moved into the 21 century.

“It’s a great tool, a very modern technology. I think eventually we will see social media technology applied to daily thought and be used to critique ourselves and introduce ideas.”

When I asked him if he thinks all that technology can lead to lasting connections and change, he said much depended on the people using it and the information they convey.

“It depends on what people do with it. It seems to be quite effective. Trump uses it to his advantage to putting out thoughts and ideas that he’s interested in. The rest of us can do the same thing. I think if the information is compelling enough and stimulating enough people will apply what they hear and maybe make a difference in how they commit themselves to social issues.”

The Colors of Music

And still keeping that artist/activist balance, the day after Belafonte’s Houston event, he drops his latest album, a retrospective of his RCA years. He reviewed his body of work and selected what he says are some of his most interesting and revealing songs. The title, The Legacy of Harry Belafonte: When Colors Come Together, was the idea of his son David.

“It’s a metaphor,” Belafonte explained. “When Colors Come Together, when people come together, when ideas come together, all that life has to offer together. We make a rainbow of our experiences, make something positive out of those experiences.”

So perhaps those colors create a metaphor for both the audience and Harry Belafonte’s 90 remarkable years.

The Brilliant Lecture Series presents A Conversation with Harry Belafonte on February 23 at the Wortham Theater Center.