Harry Belafonte has a vision that has not changed since he walked alongside civil-rights leader Martin Luther King in the ’60s, or even before, when he decided to use the power of his enormous celebrity to create a better world.
“Life has been more than generous in giving me this platform,” he said.
But Belafonte never expected the battles he had fought years ago—pertaining to poverty and injustice—would have to be fought all over again. “I just kind of figured after all this, all of these many years, the last thing that I would be winding up doing with the last years of my life is still looking to fix those things that I thought we fixed 50 years ago.”
Belafonte, his passion and intellect intact at 85, was in Montreal for a few days in September to accept the 2012 Humanitarian Award conferred upon him by the International Black Film Festival, the first such award during the fest’s eight-year history.
During his stay, the festival screened the panoramic film Sing Your Song, which highlights Belafonte’s artistic and civil-rights work from his first days in Hollywood to the present day. The film covers the unfolding of Belafonte’s acting and singing career, the civil-rights movement and the ensuing crises of apartheid, the Ethiopian famine, Haiti and incarcerated youth in the United States.
Speaking about the film, he said he wanted to reach out to the “many young people who have no idea who I am. Here are my history and credentials. You may find a valued voice—for those in need of a voice.”
At a press conference, he said it was time to redirect focus onto the marginalizers, not the marginalized, to “what victimizers have to say about changing the process.” He spoke of his mentor, the great Paul Robeson, who said: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.”
In the production notes to the film, Belafonte explained the origin of the film’s title, drawn from Robeson’s counsel. “Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are,” Robeson told him. “And if they want to know who you are, you’ve gained the first step in bringing truth and insight that might help people get through this rather difficult world.”
Belafonte wrote a book and created a blog at singyoursongthemovie.com, inviting youth to see and discuss his film and gain an awareness of history. It is the implied hope that young people will be inspired and become more involved.
“Citizens need to be engaged again,” he said at the press conference.
Though billed as the King of Calypso, Belafonte dismissed the title as “lazy journalism,” saying he is trying to survive what marketing did to him.
“The art of my work is much more eclectic than that. I am not a Calypso singer, I am a singer of Calypso songs.”
He also takes exception to those who think of him as an artist-turned-activist. “I was an activist before I became an artist,” he said. He is an advocate of peaceful change and supports the Occupy movement, seeing poverty as a root cause of the ills of society, including racism.
To a young person during a Q&A following the screening of the film, he said, “Anger is very important. It is what you do with it that defines violence from non-violence.”