“There are a lot of people out here that are really pissed off. We are angry, we are upset, we are sad, we hold our children, we wheel our wheelchairs. We look around for some comfort, and we don’t find any. But we have to look to ourselves. I think the last frontier of truth and hope in this country is the people themselves. Somewhere in this moment, my soul, somewhere in this moment all that I have known, all that felt, all that I have experienced have commanded me to say, what do you do now?” — Harry Belafonte
On Monday, October 17th at 10 p.m. EST/PT, HBO will air an inspiring, compelling and deeply beautiful memoir documentary about artistic renegade and human activist, Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song.
Being in the entertainment and music industry for the majority of my career, I have had a chance in to briefly meet and work with Mr. Belafonte and his daughter Gina while they were working on this film, and a recording. I did not get to know him well, but you need only a brief encounter with this man to capture the significance of his journey. I ran into Mr. Belafonte and his wife just a week ago at a benefit and gala hosted by his long time and dear friend Tony Bennett. I shared with him that I had seen the documentary, that the executives at HBO had enthusiastically shared it with me, and how much I truly believed it should be included in music curriculum in schools as it exhibits and captures the connection between art, music, culture, and social change in some of the most important parts of our country’s history. Many youth may not even realize this history or it’s connection to music. He humbly thanked me for my opinions, and we shared a moment discussing music and art in the public schools. We were standing, coincidentally, in the middle of a benefit surrounded by musicians, artists, actors, and political leaders who were there to show support for Tony Bennett’s “Exploring The Arts” which funds programs in the New York City Public School system. Tony, a long time friend and activist himself, played the benefit concert with Belafonte in Montgomery, Alabama the night before the King Marched to the Alabama State Capital, and marched on Washington with King and Belafonte. All of which is in this great film. I immediately began to believe that the documentary title means so much more than one screening or airing of the film on the network. It truly is what many of us, and particularly youth need to see. Sing Your Song.
We are living in a period of change both in our country and around the world. An era that is redefining both right before us. Many people feel lost in this change, particularly youth, and that results in a lost of their inspiration and hope, and ultimately a loss of voice. Harry Belafonte used his voice for his entire life. His journey created tipping points both artistically and politically that altered the course of history. Many of these events, moments, and relationships were well publicized or carefully bandaged in a song, play or film he appeared in. I imagine, most of the important and altering parts of his “movement” were woven so deeply into the fabric of how he woke up in the morning and went to sleep at night that even he may have not realized the impacts he made by his existence, or even make sense of half of what he found himself engulfed it. What is illuminated is that he followed his heart, and “sang his song.” Transfixed by music and the power of the thoughts and images that were artistically communicated in the theatre, he realized early in life that acting and singing and the voice he had through it would influence people profoundly.
In the 1950s, Mr. Belafonte was inspired by the voice of Paul Robeson. He credits Mr. Robeson, whom remained a friend, advisor, and fellow civil rights activist throughout his life, in having an intense influence in him finding his creative artistry.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Harry shattered boundaries, risked his life and became a voice for humanity. Mr. Belafonte’s work shaped and reflected the times in which he lived and the impacts that race and human rights made on society. From refusing to succumb to studio and network demands for segregated casts in productions, to his ability to lead and organize the artist community of musicians that were friendly with the “movement,” and represent Black America to future leaders of the country. He marched on Washington and in Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther King, Jr. Each day was not only full of purpose, but also enriched with culture, art, and risk. The first African American to star as a lead with a Caucasian love interest both in theatre and in film. The first recording artist to sell one million copies of an album in both the United States and the United Kingdom (Calypso, 1956). The first to sell one million copies of a single (“Day-O”). The lead in a traveling theatre production in segregated America in the 50s; he was constantly faced with negotiations in moving into venues and places for the first time, breaking down barriers. As he sang, his popularity and influence grew, but so did his commitment to Civil and Human rights. He collaborated with the likes of Sidney Poitier, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horn, Dorothy Dandridge, Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Dianne Carroll, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Tony Bennett, most of which shared his views in human interest and where the country should be going. He stood for something. He loved passionately. Was loyal. This is what led him to liaise and to establish relationships with Martin Luther King, Jr., and both Robert Kennedy and Jack Kennedy. Race relations intensified the climate and the mood of America, and he became increasingly more submerged in the fight for change. Devastated by many of his experiences along the way, particularly at times of being accused of being “unpatriotic,” he would not allow these experiences to undermine his course in the fight for injustice and his ability to influence and bring people together through music. In reference to the historic recording in 1985 of the song “We Are The World” (U.S.A. for Africa), which was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and produced by Quincy Jones. Quincy says, “It was Harry that brought us the dream. It was Harry that called us and said let’s do something,” in reference to a trip Mr. Belafonte had just returned from in Ethiopia.
We are living in a time of struggle and debate in our country. Education, jobs, enterprise, healthcare, social needs and even debates in equality continue and perhaps always be at the center of the question of leadership, and the motivator of purpose. What all of us may need is a little art and music, and as Mr. Belafonte has said, “to find the truth and hope from within ourselves to create change.”