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.

Struggling with cultural relitavism

Fail to plan has been freelancing in Pakistan. For the past week I have been in Islamabad and Karachi, trying to get a handle on Pakistan’s affluent youth and the contradictions at the heart of their current mentality. More on that later this week if I have the time while I am writing up this project here in Dubai. This initial post is a more personal reflection.

During this trip to Pakistan, I was lucky enough to lead a few groups and carry out a number of at-home interviews, arranged by the client’s Business Intelligence team to try and give me a handle on the culture and more specifically, our target audience. In a country where the scale that reaches from richest to poorest is quite so stretched and this is quite so obvious after the most casual of observations, we knew that those we were talking to were very much of the top third of that spectrum. The client wanted us to focus on an educated, affluent, 14-24 year old target, to get a handle on their hopes, fears and aspirations, as well as their attitude to the internet and their mobile phones. Knowing we were in a country with around 12% net penetration and all the consumers we spoke to were home broadband users gives you some idea of how high up the socio-economic scale we were operating.

One interview particularly made it very difficult for me to maintain the Critical Theorist’s orthodoxy on cultural relativism- that people’s lives should be viewed within the context of their culture, rather than from the viewpoint of one’s own. One of the girls that we had an at home visit with, let’s call her Sabeen, was 18, bright, engaging and well educated. She said that she loved maths, and that she enjoyed school. But at the end of this final school year, she was stopping. Not to join the workplace or go to university, but to be married, (and ‘be’ rather than ‘get’ is important here- it is a passive act for her). Now even bearing in mind the standard ‘family support network’ ‘culturally traditional’ ‘successful track record’ ‘marriage is used for different reasons’ ‘family knows you better than you know yourself’ smattering of arguments, I found the interview with her at times uncomfortable. Faced with Sabeen’s confused smile when I asked her, when she said in five years time that she ‘will be’ married, whether that was that she aspired to as as well as believed, I struggled to hold on to that relativist position. This was not something to be questioned, it was a statement of fact, something operating on level below conscious choice, not even a default, but something preordained.

Sabeen said she wanted to be a teacher, or to at least tutor primary school children while she is waiting to be married, but she wasn’t allowed out to do that. She was up at 6 making the family breakfast, and after a morning at the girls college she would be back at midday to make the family lunch. Cleaning in the afternoon, then school work, then the family’s dinner. And her mother was at home, and they had household help. It wasn’t that they needed her assistance, its that it was part of her preparation, her training. Her two younger sisters would step up to take this role in her place when the time came as they transitioned through puberty. Her two brothers had the family computer in their room. She said she wanted to use it to study, but that they would not let her without their supervision and only for short periods of time. Her friends went out for gelato and did other things that middle class Pakistani girls in Islamabad did. They didn’t ostracise her for it, but she did not participate. Not could, ‘could not’ would imply an option. This was not atypical of the many of the girls in the groups, but this was the most pronounced.

She smiled almost beatifically, serene. There was a smart young woman, who wanted to teach but instead was following what had been set out for her. It wasn’t even a case of accepting her fate. That implied that there could be another option, that at some point that alternative route was blocked off. It was breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly sad. I wanted to scream, to shout that she should be able to do what she wanted, fulfil her own potential, every single trite, western liberal cliche that I had tried to check at the door. I bit my tongue and smiled and nodded, avoided leading questions, suspended my disbelief and probed in a dispassionate, detached but interested way, but it was one of the hardest, most fascinating days at work I have ever had. Often you know something, but you can’t truly understand until you experience it, until you meet it, you can’t comprehend it. I still maintain that you have to contextualise everyones’ life narratives, and not assume that your own compass is guardian of some cultural or moral absolute but it is hard sometimes when you look back at something you have experienced that is so radically different from your own norms, something that you see as wasted opportunity, to still withhold judgement.