03

May

12:39am
Ben Lunn UK
Harry Belafonte: A lesson for us all

Harry Belafonte: A lesson for us all

Ben Lunn UK//12:39am, May 3rd '23

On 25th April 2023 a bright light went out. Musician and political activist Harry Belafonte died, at the age of 93, leaving behind him a legacy of solidarity action, militant campaign, and joyous music.

Owing a lot of his activism and philosophy to Paul Robeson, who he described as a mentor, Harry Belafonte came to prominence during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, even going as far as to pay for Martin Luther King Jr’s bail from his imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama. This act alone places him miles in front of numerous of other ‘socially conscious’ artists, however Harry Belafonte did not rest on his laurels. Like his mentor, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte was blacklisted during the scourge of McCarthyism in the US. The influence of King and Robeson, he later described as “he [Robeson] gave me my backbone. Martin King was the second; he nourished my soul”.

His campaigning also included bankrolling the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, raising funds for the African continent, which included performing at Live Aid in 1985, or campaigning in South Africa against HIV/AIDS. He also received honours from numerous organisations like UNICEF because of his constant work in the continent and active campaigning.

However, these charitable elements do not show the depths of his anti-imperialist and ultimately humanist approach to life. An active champion of Cuba, this included fighting against the illegal embargo of Cuba, praising Fidel Castro, and arguably the man who cemented hip-hop’s place in Cuban society, which thanks to Belafonte’s with Castro saw national approval of the art form. In 2003 Belafonte said:

“When I went back to Havana a couple years later, the people in the hip-hop community came to see me and we hung out for a bit. They thanked me profusely and I said ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because your little conversation with Fidel and the Minister of Culture on hip-hop led to there being a special division within the ministry and we’ve got our own studio’.”

His relationship with Cuba went both ways, and Prensa Latina reported that the Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel mourned the death of Harry Belafonte saying that he was ‘an extraordinary artist and human being…A friend of Cuba and its historic leader Fidel Castro, Belafonte was one of the forerunner of solidarities with Cuba’.

Belafonte, like numerous other artists, was also active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, his dedication to the fight even saw him being the master of ceremonies at the African National Congress in 1987. Similarly, in 1988 his album Paradise in Gazankulu featured numerous protest songs which were directed squarely at South African Apartheid.

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Similarly, during the George W. Bush years, Harry Belafonte stood firmly on the side of Venezuelan people, and it is said in a meeting with Hugo Chavez Belafonte said:

“No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says, we're here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people support your revolution.”

Belafonte also refused to be swayed by Obama saying that he felt that Obama played the game, and didn’t trouble himself with the concerns of the poor.

Appearing in 16 films between 1953 and 2018, 17 Documentaries from 1970 to 2020, and a prolific 38 albums (both live and studio) shows he was a artist full of energy and dedication to his craft, his passion, and his political beliefs too. This is ultimately the lesson we as artists and individuals need to learn.

There have been a wonderous outpouring of grief and numerous obituaries which sing Harry Belafonte’s praise – and rightly so. However, often the failure is to suggest that with the death of the man his legacy is purely memory. This would ultimately be a failure and a travesty. The greatest honour to the incredible legacy of Belafonte would be to not only to learn from him but build upon his life of work.

He stood by oppressed people the world over, cried out against the injustice of the coup in Grenada, the horrors of apartheid, stood strongly in defence of Cuba and other progressive governments, while also fighting the battle at home, in the heart of imperialism. Belafonte honoured the life and legacies of Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King Jr by continuing on the struggle they fought in, we as artists can keep this alive and well.

Remember the wonderful talents, the sweet seductive voice, and the tireless for what is right, in defence of our fellow humans against the horrors, tyranny, and oppressive forces in this world. Remember Belafonte, and fight like hell for the living.

Cover Image Credits: By Piano Piano! is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Editor's Note:

The views and informations expressed in the article are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect the views of The International. We believe in providing a platform for a range of viewpoints from the left.

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