Bill Banfield is a professor of Africana Studies/ Music and Society and director of the Center for Africana Studies and programs at Berklee. An award-winning composer, jazz guitarist /recording artist, and public radio show host, he has authored five books for Scarecrow Press on music, arts, cultural criticism, and history.
During the week of March, 3, 2014, Berklee engaged itself in a series of concerts, talk-ins, and film showings on the life and work of Harry Belafonte. The culminating celebration was a night of his music performed expertly by an incredible array of Berklee’s best, and then the awarding of an honorary doctorate to Belafonte. My purpose here is to raise up a few ideas: sustaining themes that connect us to the practice and methods of artistic social action. I was blessed to have been able to sit and have a long chat with this inspiring figure. Harry Belafonte, and the work of artists and social activism in the world, is a model of immense importance and relevance today. Artists and educators have an important duty to shape our times with knowledge of this side of the work of music. Harry Belafonte and people who marched and worked in the civil rights days had to put themselves in the shoes of other people, and possessed a kind of not sympathy, but empathy.
Being from Jamaica, the banana boat cargo and Caribbean street songs were a natural part of the fabric of Belafonte’s upbringing. He later saw the folk singer, Lead Belly. He was in Harlem and around him were Malcolm X, WEB Du Bois, and Paul Robeson—inspiring figures who imbued him with social consciousness. Then working in the Harlem actors collective theater, with Sidney Portlier and others, they felt called upon to use theater as a voice, an amplifier for social causes. So culture and the songs for social justice were a part of the fabric of his life. Belafonte was born in 1927. He is known as an actor and civil rights activist, as he sang the traditions of folk music and spirituals, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, and walked with Nelson Mandela, a major force behind the “We Are the World,” the song that raised awareness and millions for famine relief in Africa makes the point. In his biography, My Song, Belafonte describes himself, as an “actor, singer, activist.” He said, ” My mother’s hopes and ambitions for us were not at that time fulfilled. But dignity, care were ideas she held up.” Again, living in the late thirties in Harlem, New York and being around Du Bois, Robson, these figures greatly inspired him to think differently. Robeson told him, “Get the people to sing your song and they will know who you are.” But what he learned too was again seeing the theater as a social, political force, and that became music-social activism for him. Belafonte’s sincere attention early on was focused on the needs and hurt of people and a commitment to change the social conditions through social justice. He is committed to the study of culture, history, and people rituals. He learned courage to speak truth to power and this focused his willingness to work on the behalf of the people. The history of American popular music owes many of its expressive, structural, and stylistic formulations to great artists creating within our newly found language and indigenous music forms, which merged together African American sacred and folk traditions. Music such as the spirituals, blues, and jazz, and Euro/American religious and folk ballad songs form a larger tradition called “American popular music.” The music created a value system for our souls to live in: soul music—values about what we want and hope for in life, values about our identities, values about our love relationships, values about our ethnic/cultural names, and values about the notion that, “I am somebody” and I have an experience that is worthy. Musicianship is a value system. The great jazz composer Duke Ellington said, “I’m not trying to play jazz, I’m playing the natural feelings of a people.” For Ellington, his people were important. He was conscious of the people around him. The life, dimensions, struggles, and triumphs were captured and carried in the music. So the people attached themselves to that identity. These two entities—the living of the people and the music of the people that lived with the people—became inextricably bound. This past year I decided to work on political campaigns in one Southern state and here in Boston. I saw firsthand how the issues of police brutality, heath care, recognizing the importance of the identity of your local community, ways that political-economic policy shifts, education/ schools, and lack of services hugely affect people’s lives. That work helped me to understand the fragility of social-political system and how much was at stake when people got to vote, that that vote was a vote on sets of principles that demanded action that was going to affect people’s lives, that it was worth fighting and dying for. People like a Harry Belafonte keep that reality front and center, what the people need and feel. Again: empathy for neighbor. Malala Yousafzai, (Ma-La-La..You-sa-Fazh-ha), the young girl shot by the Taliban for her support of girls who wanted their education, makes these points clear: “I want to inspire all of us to action. . . There are hundreds of people struggling to reach the goal of peace, education and equality. Thousands of people have been killed and injured. I am just, one of them, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but for voices that cannot be heard. In 2010, October the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They thought their bullet would silence us, but they failed. They thought they would change my ambitions. . . Weakness, fear, hopelessness died, and strength, fervor, and courage was born. . . This is the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela.” Harry Belafonte’s work is symbolic in real ways that connect and reach and remind us of the reasons we use our music and voices in the world: as artists in actions that connect to peoples’ lives and are committed to make differences in our world.