He may have risked his life and career fighting against segregation in the United States alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, but at 85, Harry Belafonte is still vocal about social injustice.
Speaking to an NYU journalism class last Monday — the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street — Belafonte came in with a sharp mind and jump-started the weary youth in the 8 a.m. class.
“As I see it, Occupy Wall Street is not a phenomenon. It’s people with enormous discontent trying to find an answer,” Belafonte said. “All along it has been like this, in my time or any time.”
While much of the world remembers Belafonte as the legendary singer-actor whose professional legacy was brought to life in the 2011 HBO documentary “Sing Your Song” and 2011 memoir “My Song,” he thinks of himself firstly as a social activist.
“It is enough to start a rebellion based on what you don’t want,” Belafonte said.
Born into poverty in Harlem and having seen first-hand injustices administered towards black South Africans under Apartheid, social change always remained close to his heart.
“How can we have so much, and all we seem to do is wake up every day and destroy it?” Belafonte asked. “The question is, brick by brick, how can we begin to put it back together.”
In 1985, he inspired the creation of the Grammy Award-winning song “We Are the World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, helping to raise more than $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa.
“Art is the social consciousness,” Belafonte said. “As artists, we are the gatekeepers of truth, and we are the ones who shape the path to moral debate.”
That passion has not left Mr. Belafonte. He plans to create a film adaption of Adam Hochschild’s book, “King Leopold’s Ghost,” which depicts crimes committed by European colonists in Africa.
“It’s really my last major attempt at using the time I have and the resources and the influence I have,” Belafonte said. “It would be my swan song, so to speak.”
Belafonte’s unyielding thirst for positive social change remains a focus of admiration among people worldwide.
“His generosity, curiosity and immense energy make him the artist, author and activist that he is,” said Jean-Michel Pilc, a Steinhardt faculty member who worked as Belafonte’s musical director and pianist.
Most of the problems of social strife found allies in the words of artists. But by the ’60s, there began to be a sharp line drawn between art and social commentary.
“In my time, the things that entertained us were rooted to a social theme. Even our humor was touched that way,” Belafonte said. “Now, if you want to tell a story that needs telling, you need to consider how to make it commercially viable.”
Because of entertainment’s unyielding tie to money, he said artists today predominantly try to satisfy the market at the expense of social meaning and understanding.
“If one does not have a real grasp of history, you can’t have a real debate,” he said. “I’m looking to you for answers, you’re looking to me for answers, but we just don’t understand each other’s DNA.”
Teck Leong Lim is a contributing writer. Additional reporting by Philip Rosenbaum’s Journalism class. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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