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HomeMusicHarry Belafonte once asked Black artists to deliver a protest song

Harry Belafonte once asked Black artists to deliver a protest song

Harry Belafonte, the famed pop star who died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at 96 years old, helped bring calypso to the masses via his 1956 album “Calypso,” which featured his unavoidable rendition of the traditional Jamaican song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” But more central to his mission was uplifting those around him, specifically Black people trapped in the same systems of oppression he faced growing up in New York and Jamaica.

Belafonte played a key role in the civil rights movement, fundraising with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and later helping to launch an early voter registration drive in Mississippi. Years later in 1985, he organized a legion of A-list singers from Michael Jackson to Bob Dylan to record “We Are the World,” the success of which sent millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Africa.

In 2013, Belafonte was honored at the 44th NAACP Image Awards with the Spingarn Medal, the organization’s award recognizing the achievements of Black individuals. The award has also been given to Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington and Oprah Winfrey, among others. After a heartwarming dedication from his friend Sidney Poitier, Belafonte spoke about the debate around gun reform, emphasizing that the groups of people who had suffered the most yet remained largely absent from the conversation.

“A river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our Black children,” Belafonte said. “Yet, as the great debate emerges on the question of the gun, white America discusses the constitutional issue of ownership, while no one speaks of the consequences of our racial carnage.

“The question is: Where is the raised voice of Black America? Why are we mute? Where are our leaders, our legislators? Where is the church?” he asked.

He continued, echoing artist and activist Paul Robeson’s quote that “‘artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.’”

“Never in the history of Black America has there ever been such a harvest of truly gifted and powerful artists, as we witness today,” he continued. “Yet, our nation hungers for their radical song. Let us not sit back silently…”

A new generation of Black artists seems to be rising to the task. Perhaps most notably, Kendrick Lamar in 2015 released his scorching album “To Pimp A Butterfly,” which contained a rousing anthem for persevering through racial adversary in “Alright.” Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for the album “DAMN.” in 2018.

Noname, a Chicago rapper whose breezy wordplay put her on the map in the mid 2010s, formed Noname’s Book Club to uplift the voices of Black and brown authors, and also sends more than 1,000 books a month to prisons across America. YG and Nipsey Hussle linked in 2016 for “FDT,” which took aim at then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. And entertainers from Lil Baby to Kendrick Sampson stepped up in a big way during the 2020 protests after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, both by writing songs and leading marches.

Jamie Foxx was similarly inspired in 2013 when he was honored as the NAACP’s Entertainer of the Year. He followed Belafonte’s speech by saying how much the icon’s words moved him.

“I was thinking about all the stuff I was going to say personally about myself, and I was going to be all about me, and how I did it, and how me and me and I, and I,” Foxx said on stage. “And then you watch Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier come out, and you say to yourself, it’s really not that big of a deal what you’re doing just yet.

“I had so many things I wanted to say, but after watching and listening to Harry Belafonte speak, sometimes I feel like I failed a little bit in being caught up in what I do,” he continued. “Maybe that’s the young generation, and that’s what it is. But I guarantee you, I’m going to work a whole lot harder, man.”

Read Belafonte’s full speech below.

“Let me start off by first saying, thank you, to the NAACP and the others, for the work you do and the path you’re forging for us in these troubled times. The group most devastated by America’s obsession with the gun is African Americans. Although making comparisons can be dangerous, there are times they must be noted.

America has the largest prison population in the world, and of the over 2 million men, women and children who make up the incarcerated, the overwhelming majority is Black. They are the most unemployed, the most caught in the unjust systems of justice, and in the gun game, they are the most hunted.

A river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our Black children. Yet, as the great debate emerges on the question of the gun, white America discusses the constitutional issue of ownership, while no one speaks of the consequences of our racial carnage.

The question is: Where is the raised voice of Black America? Why are we mute? Where are our leaders, our legislators? Where is the church?

Not all, but many have been the recipients of this distinguished award. Many were men and women, who spoke up to remedy the ills of the nation. They were committed to radical thought. They were my mentors, my inspiration, my moral compass. Through them, I understood America’s greatness.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Martin Luther King Jr. Eleanor Roosevelt, and others like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Bobby Kennedy, [Condoleezza] Rice. And perhaps, most important of all for me, Paul Robeson. He was the sparrow. He was an artist who made us understand the depth of that calling, when he said, ‘artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.’

Never in the history of Black America has there ever been such a harvest of truly gifted and powerful artists, as we witness today. Yet, our nation hungers for their radical song. Let us not sit back silently, let us not be charged with patriotic treason.

I thank my friend Sidney Poitier for stepping to the plate. I promise you, Sid, you’ll never have to do this again. And my congratulations to all of you who are honored here tonight. And I will tell you that our kids, who languish in the prisons of America, are waiting for us to change the system.”



This story originally appeared on LA Times

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