Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families

23Feb/150

Harry Belafonte remarks after receiving the Humanitarian Award at the 2014 Governors Awards

In his acceptance speech, Harry Belafonte talks about the responsibility of artists to be truth-tellers about the times during which they live. In doing so he evokes the memory of other artistic and activist exemplars... Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, among others.

Harry Belafonte receives the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2014 Governors Awards in the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood, CA, Saturday, November 8. (Approximately 12 minutes)

30Aug/130

Harry Belafonte: Dr. Martin Luther King ‘helped me grow as a person’

Below is a brief video of Chris Witherspoon of the Grio talking with Harry Belafonte on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  In this 5-minute video, Harry Belafonte reflects on the foreign policy record of the Obama administration - the disappointment and the possibility, as well as his own relationship with and admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've always appreciated Mr. Belafonte's clear analysis, and his willingness to be openly critical of a person's perspective and track record, but always leaving open the possibility of change and his willingness to engage toward that end.

 

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

8Aug/130

More on Harry Belafonte and Jay Z

Since my earlier piece on the Harry Belafonte and Jay Z exchange, a few more essays and discussions have come out that get directly at some of the points I was trying to highlight.

This isn't intended to belabor the point, but to highlight the underlying issues, which in some ways are larger than the two individuals involved in this particular exchange, and speak to a larger conversation that ebbs and flows within the Black community, and this country's larger national political space.

So here we go...

Jay Z appeared on Bill Maher's HBO show last Friday night (8/2).  During the first five minutes, Jay Z shares once more what his underlying take was on Belafonte's comments from a year earlier.  No huge new news here, but the basic points he makes are that:

  1. The year-old interview wasn't the right venue for Harry Belafonte to express his displeasure with Jay Z and Beyonce;
  2. Belafonte could have reached out directly, talked through his perspective, and potentially found a way to do some good work together; and
  3. That Belafonte also seemed to be grand-standing by calling him out in the interview, and then bringing Beyonce into it.

As I mentioned, you get the point within the first five minutes, with the remaining discussion about entertainment, the business side of the work and a brief dip back into politics.

 

 

Obviously, Jay Z thought the comments were made as direct personal attacks.  I didn't think so.  I saw him mentioning Jay Z and Beyonce to illustrate a larger point about contemporary artists and entertainers.  The point applied to them for sure, but also to them as representatives of this larger generation of artists and entertainers.

Moving on.

There was also an essay written by Gene Demby for NPR.  Demby also argues that Harry Belafonte and Jay Z are speaking two different languages, precisely because of the difference in how they've experienced American society, their social and political influences, and (presumably) their respective ideas about the role of an artist and entertainer.  If you understand this dynamic, you can understand why and how they can be talking right past one another.

Belafonte was a celebrity and a bona fide, full-time political activist. (Belafonte was a major fundraiser for Martin Luther King's Birmingham campaign, which was largely organized from Belafonte's New York City apartment.) For much of American history, the act of being black and famous was an inherently political act. Marian Anderson, Joe Louis, Bill Russell — just pick someone, really — all challenged the established order simply by being. Their presences weren't charity, per se, but they were of enormous consequence.

Black celebrityhood operates much differently now — and it's different in large part because of the efforts of Belafonte and so many of his contemporaries. Jay Z and so many of us who grew up listening to his music inherited a world dramatically different than Belafonte. Whatever world the next generation inherits will have its own distinct guidelines and understanding of what social responsibility looks like.

Belafonte is criticizing Jay Z and Jay Z isn't bowing in deference —after, all that's not how hip-hop has ever worked. (Belafonte has since said he'd like to meet in person with Jay Z to squash their beef.) Whatever you think about the merits of their arguments, they are operating from two deeply disparate cultural contexts. Belafonte was at the peak of his fame in a world where he fought just so people could exercise the right to vote. Now, we live in a world where Jay Z gets quoted by the first black president. Just 20 years ago, that last scenario would have felt like jokey speculative fiction.

Is it any wonder they're talking past each other?

 

I appreciate the analysis.

Also within the last week, there was a discussion between Bakari Kitwana and Mark Anthony Neal, exploring the broader historical context of these sorts of conversations between the elders and younger generations within the African American community, as well as between those who are critics of hip-hop (music and the culture) and those who are supporters.

The reality is that Harry Belafonte's activism, and his specific activities, cuts across generations, and includes youth and young adults from all walks of life.

More of this analysis comes through in these two parts of the conversation.  At times it gets away from the immediate Harry Belafonte and Jay Z exchange (so-called beef), although that's the point.  It's intended to explore the broader social and cultural context in which this discussion is happening, and the generational dynamics that play into it.

 

 

 

All of this having been said, and when you consider the prospect of the two of them meeting privately, working through any misunderstandings and differences in perspective, and then committing to  joint efforts, my previous sense of the whole thing remains...

There’s a great deal of unrealized potential within the African American entertainment community (as with entertainers more broadly), and a deep and unnecessary schism between some among our younger generations and our elders. Both Harry Belafonte and Jay Z have the level of influence among each of these groups to bridge this gap. Of course there are many people who know this, and will continue working to prevent that from happening. May truth and justice win, and may we all do our part to bridge this gap.

When it’s all said and done, I appreciate the example Harry Belafonte has always shown, and his consistent leadership and activism in support of justice for African people.

 

Truth-telling has to be at the center of all of these discussions, and all of this work, though, as truth, justice and an affirmation of humanity must always come before capitalism and individual self-interest.

28Jul/130

Harry Belafonte & Jay Z: Beyond the Headlines

Many of you may have seen or heard some of the recent and critical exchange between Harry Belafonte and Jay Z regarding the disappointing absence of many of the most visible African American entertainers from discussions about, and sustained organizing efforts focused on fighting, racism and other injustices.

I'd like to share a few resources that help to place this timely exchange in context. Bare with the length, but understanding what's really behind this exchange is important.

Harry Belafonte's critique is not a new one.  He's consistently critiqued the relative absence of (younger) African American entertainers in the continuing struggle against racism and other forms of oppression.  Included among these younger entertainers, Belafonte has named Jay Z and Beyoncé.

Among the occasions during which Belafonte has offered this critique is an interview published on August 7, 2012 at The Hollywood Reporter.  During the interview, Belafonte discusses the relationship between his own life as an entertainer and his underlying commitment to the struggle against racism, sexism, war and other forms of oppression.  He goes on to talk about the dangers of an increasing and unbridled capitalism which is concentrating the world's wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people and institutions, and the potential for social media to challenge this through increased transparency.

It was after these comments, when asked whether he was pleased with the current image of 'minorities' in Hollywood, that Belafonte offered this additional analysis, referencing Jay Z and Beyoncé as examples...

Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking. We are not determinated. We are not driven by some technology that says you can kill Afghans, the Iraqis or the Spanish. It is all -- excuse my French -- shit. It is sad. And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example.

 

Harry Belafonte's comments got a decent amount of attention at the time, and are now back in the national spotlight after recent reactions by Jay Z to this critique.  During a July 19th interview, Jay Z shared his own disappointment with both the substance of Belafonte's critique as well as the way the critique was offered - in the public (white) media, and holding up Bruce Springsteen as the positive counter on issues related to race and oppression.

Specifically, Jay Z says that his very example, his very existence and presence, is 'charity'.  Comparing himself to Obama, he suggests that regardless of what either of them say or do (Jay Z contends that he supports causes he has a personal interest in), because of who they are and how they got to where they are professionally (hard work, grind, bootstraps, etc., etc.), they represent the best examples of hope and possibility for young people.  You'll get the point within the first 10-15 minutes of the interview.

 

 

What becomes clear from the interview is that Belafonte and Jay Z are speaking very different languages in terms of understanding the meaning of 'social justice' - at least the fullness of what that means to Belafonte.  Those who have followed Belafonte's career know that he's not talking about 'charity' and/or how much money one donates to different causes, although that's important.  He's talking about the responsibility of people who have greater levels of public influence (i.e. celebreties, entertainers, etc.) to use that very celebrity and influence in support of justice, and in opposition to racism, sexism, war and other forms of oppression. He's talking about their responsibility to speak truth to power.

Harry Belafonte realized this during the early stages of his career.  He's spoken at length about Paul Robeson's powerful example in this regard, as well as the examples of numerous white entertainers who have used their celebrity to publicly push social justice-related causes.  His autobiography, My Song: A Memoir, and the companion film documentary, Sing Your Song, are great resources for more of this background.

Here's a relatively recent interview with Harry Belafonte, where he elaborates on his own sense of responsibility for advancing social justice causes...

 

 

Most recently, during an interview at a Trayvon Martin-related and youth-led protest in Florida, Harry Belafonte explained the context of his 2012 remarks (particularly that they were not intended as a direct attack on Jay Z and Beyoncé), and elaborated on the way other entertainers received his comments in the spirit in which they were offered, and have renewed and/or intensified their commitment to the kinds of struggles Belafonte speaks of.  Moreover, he affirms that he doesn't think the media is the place where he and Jay Z should be having this exchange, and welcomed an opportunity to talk with Jay Z one-on-one so they can get to a shared understanding and appreciation of one another's perspectives.  This is consistent with Belafonte's long-standing practice of working hand-in-hand with youth and others to share lessons and continue the struggle.

I absolutely hope this happens.  There's a great deal of unrealized potential within the African American entertainment community (as with entertainers more broadly), and a deep and unnecessary schism between some among our younger generations and our elders. Both Harry Belafonte and Jay Z have the level of influence among each of these groups to bridge this gap. Of course there are many people who know this, and will continue working to prevent that from happening. May truth and justice win, and may we all do our part to bridge this gap.

When it's all said and done, I appreciate the example Harry Belafonte has always shown, and his consistent leadership and activism in support of justice for African people.

 

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy