Tag Archives: Harry Belafonte

Celebrating Harry Belafonte

2 Aug

BelafonteGiven the recent events involving one of my personal heroes, Harry Belafonte, and Jay Z (a staunch supporter of marriage equality), I thought this would be an appropriate time to celebrate a social justice hero.  Belafonte is known world wide for his entertainment career, but I have always had a much greater appreciation for his social activism.  Belafonte has used his celebrity to help and support Dr. Martin Luther King.  In fact, it was Belafonte who bailed King out of the now famous Birmingham Jail.  He also financed the Freedom Rides, and helped our Bayard Rustin organize the March on Washington.

Belafonte’s dedication to human rights is not restricted to the borders of the United States, although it is worth noting that Belafonte was one of a handful of people who vocally opposed the policies of the George W. Bush administration. This was during the Great Silence when practically NO ONE dared to question the administration for fear of being called unpatriotic.  One of Belafonte’s most famous admonitions addressed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and their implication in the violation of human rights under Bush II:

There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture.

Belafonte has fought against the neo-colonization of countries in Africa.  He has helped the fight against HIV and AIDS in South Africa.  Belafonte has dedicated his life to human rights and continues to interrupt oppression around the world.  He also expects all people to take action and stand in solidarity with all targeted populations. He was proud to serve as one of the Grand Marshalls of the New York City Pride Parade this year in recognition of his support of LGBT rights and marriage equality.

While I do not wish to get into the particulars around what Belafonte said and how Jay Z responded, I would like and hope that these two men can come together and have a conversation away from the public, as Belafonte has suggested. They both make good points — progress requires direct action and public figures with whom marginalized youth can identify.

Belafonte is not only a treasure for social justice but he holds institutional and systemic memory.  Jay Z is young and has enormous power and influence.  Imagine how powerful these two voices could be if united and how many of us would support them both to help celebrate counter narratives that challenge the dominant culture. If we want the world to change for the better, we need to look towards the solidarity of targeted populations coming together in numbers too big to be ignored.

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Women’s History Month 2013: Miriam Makeba

4 Mar

MakebaToday we honor and celebrate the powerful singer and international social justice activist known to the world as Mama Africa. Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on this date in 1932. She began singing in a primary school choir. She married young and had her only child, Bongi Makeba, at the age of 18. Shortly after this, Miriam was diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband left her.

After her recovery, she began pursuing music professionally, working with the local jazz group the Manhattan Brothers. She left the band to form her own all-female group, the Skylarks, who merged native music with jazz stylings. It was with the Skylarks that she recorded the first version of her best known hit, Pata Pata. She composed it herself (with rock writer Jerry Ragovoy), mostly in the Xhosa language.

Her first major break also caused her major problems. She eagerly participated in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa. Audiences responded so well to her presence in the film that the director had her travel to festivals to help promote it. It was during this time that she met fellow South African performer and future husband Hugh Masakela. When she tried to return home for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that the South African government had cancelled her passport in retaliation for her anti-apartheid work. Guinea, Belgium, and Ghana issued her international passports in recognition of her situation.

Harry Belafonte helped introduce Makeba to U.S. audiences as part of the proto-World Beat movement of the mid-60s. She was very well received and began a promising career, including the U.S. release of Pata Pata which went to #12. After her marriage to Masakela ended, she met and married Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael. His status as a Black Panther concerned the more conservative power brokers in the American music industry, and she suddenly found herself without a record deal or a tour. She took advantage of her Guinean passport and moved there, where she lived happily for the next 15 years.

While in Guinea, Makeba served as a delegate to the United Nations, speaking on race relations in Africa. In addition to performing, she continued her activism, working on hunger in Africa and political unrest. She finally returned to South Africa in 1990 to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela. She spent the 90s recording with other luminaries (like the great Nina Simone, a true kindred spirit). She was also appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Ever irrepressible, she also collaborated with South African first lady Graça Machel-Mandela on combatting juvenile HIV and the use of children as soldiers.

Mama Africa was known for her passion and her infectious smile. She loved performing and never slowed down. During a fundraising concert in Italy in 2008, she suffered a heart attack. It is somehow fitting that she left this world doing the two things she loved best, singing and making it a better place. Happy Birthday, Miriam Makeba! You departed too young at 76, but your legacy is still felt by the millions whose lives you touched.

One of the Voices of Social Justice: Singer, Peace Activist, Holly Near

21 Aug

Those of you that follow TSM already know what a huge fan I am of Holly Near, and what an inspiration she is to so many who work to make the world a better place for all.  I was fortunate enough to visit with Holly about her life and about the debut of her new album, Peace Becomes You, which is available today.

Your new album, Peace Becomes You, debuts on August 21, did you approach this album differently?  

I did inasmuch that I just took a two-year sabbatical. When I came back from that there was so much stored up in that, things I needed to write but also songs I wanted to use from other people. I set up four public rehearsals to hear the new material, so that I could feel their feedback, and what they were leaning into. Of course the band was a bit startled.  I wanted to allow people to feel the music.  Then I went straight into the studio.  While my voice is still so strong, I needed to do a double CD as one album.  It felt that this maybe the last time I do a project this big.

How did you decide on the title of the album?

I looked at all of the titles of the songs and Crazy just did not seem appropriate.  I have the song to John Fromer who is struggling with cancer right now and he wrote the melody for Peace Becomes You.  We made a bumper sticker reading “Peace Becomes You,” which you can only get at concerts.

How did you pick songs that might be considered canonical to go along with new, original songs?  

Over the last five years I did a lot of camping and listened to a lot of music. For example I listened to Johnny Mathis performing 99 Miles from LA, so it was that type of process, the music kind of found me.  In hindsight, one of the things I would have done differently, there was a song I worked so hard on but it did not make it to the CD and I am very sad about that.  I also wish I had spent more time writing to social activists and asking them to send me their material.  In the future I would like to highlight songs of social activism that are not getting the airplay they should be getting.

You work with another one of my absolute “sheroes” Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.  How did you select a song from her catalogue? 

I have sung quite a few of her songs and I’ve known Dr. Reagon since 1979; we have been friends over thirty, forty years.  I always feel so grateful.  I listen to her writing a lot.  There are a lot of songs that I don’t feel have any right coming out of my mouth, which narrows it down quite a bit’ it is really personal what one sings.  My friend Bonnie Raitt  has to sing what is true to herself, which I love and appreciate.  We all have to understand our own history and cultural backgrounds. Nothing is just a song or just a dance, which I’m learning more and more as I take on the role of teacher.

I love how you are dedicated to issues of social justice and civil rights. Are there some areas in which you would encourage us all to focus our energies specifically? 

At one of the festivals I was just performing at, I saw this big burly man wearing a shirt that said no planet no party — I wanted that shirt.  I think one of the main focuses should be sustaining the planet, which is hard to do, but just because it is hard, does not mean we can’t do it.  We need some planet consciousness which is being modeled by poorer communities who are being dumped upon.

I know your upcoming tour will be your first tour in quite some time with a full band; how did you make that decision? 

Every moment we are alive, we are making choices, and as humans we hold the potential to be either amazing or horrific.  I can’t get into a conversation of what issue is worst and needs the most attention. We need to be vigilant and look at our choices.  Some people will just scoop up what others have made for them and others will be brick layers making things possible and building the road on which we will walk.  I walk on roads that people have paved all the time — there is an invisibility of “women’s music,” of women that do not get heard. There is always an invisible corridor that creates necessary bridges.  A company like Lady Slipper is cellurlarly embedded in the next generation of music, even if they are just living it.

I know you are wrapping up a tour of Folk Festivals.  What has the energy been like this year as opposed to years past?

It has been awhile since I have done festivals. I was invited to many of these festivals because it was on the heels of the Occupy Movement and so there was some intent to raise awareness of activism.  I did overhear that people were surprised and saddened that there was so little political music performed.  Now I think people really do want to hear music about what is going on.  I think there is a real desire to connect while simultaneously trying to escape.  It is always hard to write about torture, gay teen suicide, women being tortured, but I work very hard at it and I reflect back and think I’ve gotten better at it.  There is room for music about smash the state and for songs for striking nurses and for anti-war songs.

You have become an Elder-States woman and steward of music of social protest.  How does it feel to wear that mantle? 

I used to joke that I was an elder in training and now I think that time is up.  I have moved into that generation of elders.  Odetta is gone and Belafonte is not doing concerts anymore.  When I travel I am being treated as an elder and it is very nice.  I learned as I was an elder in training that I can be at peace at not being the center of attention and just happy to be of use.   My generation took everything out of the box and named it; it did not all get solved, but it can be talked about.   The line in the song We’re Still Here — we are here and present and here to be of use.

What or how do you see the future of protest music?  What advice might you have for artists that look at life through a social justice lens as you do?

I think people need to get better. I think people need to practice activism, whether they are artists, teachers, religious people — the more we practice the better we get.  I encourage people to become good writers.  What do people need locally to help support them to do the hard work?  It is not just about picking up a guitar and playing three chords and now who will book me?  There is no shortage of ideas. What I see is that there is a shortage of skills to bring those ideas together. There is a lot of great hard work involved.  Invite us to make us become our better selves.  Bring a friend to a concert—expose people to music about social justice—open the circle.

You can purchase Holly’s new album through CDBaby or at Amazon.com; it should be available through iTunes shortly.

To my loyal TSM readers, I will confess that I truly did try to be objective during this interview, but it is exceedingly impossible not to just fall in love with Holly!  The new album is tremendous (as this review will attest), and she is such an inspiration.  Holly, thank you for taking the time to visit with me.

Celebrating Black History Month: February 19

19 Feb

A National Treasure

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to Nat King Cole. The irony with Cole is that he never intended to become a singer–he trained as a jazz pianist. It was quite by accident that he became a singer and in fact, even today is one of the best known jazz singers in the world. Because Cole never like the sound of his own voice, he took up smoking in hopes it would add a richness to his voice.  Nat King Cole was the first African American to host a television talk show. On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC TV.  His show debuted almost a year after Rosa Parks was arrested and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was in full swing, thus causing a great deal of controversy over Cole’s show. Kudos to Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, and Earth Kitt for doing spots on Cole’s show for free to support their friend and to support the vision of seeing African Americans on television. King’s show lasted for only a year and could never secure a national advertiser.  Cole faced the HATE of racism throughout his life, with the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses on his front lawn in Los Angeles, to being assaulted on stage during a performance in Birmingham, Alabama.  While on stage he was attacked by a group of people calling themselves Education of Little Tree, written by Asa “Forrest” Carter, a former KKK member. Despite so much hate and racism, Cole held his head high and carried on with class. Nat King Cole is certainly Unforgettable. In fact, The Very Thought of You, fills me with hope. I thank you for your many gifts Nat King Cole.

 

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