Harry Belafonte and the power of culture
Monday this week saw the premiere of Sing Your Song, a film about the life and work of Harry Belafonte. For those unaware, Belafonte is an American-Jamaican singer and actor who is credited with popularising Calypso and other Caribbean music styles amongst a post-war international audience, most famous for his rendition of the ‘Banana Boat Song’. The friends and colleagues that he worked alongside includes some of the greatest of the time of his peak- Brando, Poitier and Sinatra to name a few. However, Belafonte himself was never seen in quite the same light, as his greatest successes came in westernised, characterised set-piece performance of traditional Caribbean songs.
Belafonte’s success can be read one of two ways. The story that he tells of his own career is one of breaking new ground, how he toured a play through the deep South where a black man and a white woman held hands, how his show was cancelled from CBS because the sponsors were uncomfortable with the mixed cast that he used- Harry ‘could be Harry’, but the rest of the cast had to either be black or white- or how he gained a fanbase of screaming white American teeny-boppers. The other side of course is how he took and watered down spirituals and folk songs of the Caribbean and performed them to an American audience in a manner that precisely re-enforced their own stereotype of ‘clownin piccaninnies’.
It is unlikely that either of these is the absolute truth, though it is important to remember that this is a man who was recruited to the movement by Dr. Martin Luther King, and who also took part in an election broadcast for JFK, imploring black America to vote Kennedy. He is a figure who sees himself as an activist, right from his work through the 70s and 80s in Africa through to his work now with street gangs and the prison population in the US. So how do we square this Belafonte with the de man singin in de fake patois dat he nah spek wen ‘im a chile?
Speaking after the UK premiere of his film at the Brixton Ritzy, he explained that one of the key influences on his career and his choices was Paul Robeson (Rutgers Valedictorian, NFL All-American, Columbia Lawyer, Lauded Bass vocalist, award winning actor, polyglot, left-wing activist; persecuted by McCarthy and discredited by the country he so wanted to help better). Early in his career, Robeson told Belafonte to ‘make them sing your song, then they will want to know who you are’. Belafonte cited again and again in the Q & A the ‘power of culture’, bringing the other into someone’s theatre of front room to create interest, curiosity, familiarity and ultimately empathy.
It is a little reminiscent of the fable about the sun and the wind having a competition to see who can remove the man’s jacket. Influence is always more powerful than force.