Calypso With a Conscience Harry Belafonte Mixes Activism With a Detroit Concert Date

Context

I interviewed Harry Belafonte on the phone when the entertainment editor was out. So fun. 

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Harry Belafonte could have lived his 73 years simply as Belafonte, the Entertainer.

But the man who made ‘Day-O’ a household word also has chosen to live as Belafonte, the civil rights activist.

“As a celebrity, you must make a choice morally and ethically about what you can do to make a difference in this world, and do it,” he says.

Belafonte marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Thirty years later, he walked alongside Nelson Mandela during the South African leader’s first U.S. visit in 1990.

Metro Detroit residents can see Harry Belafonte — the civil rights champion and the entertainer — Thursday and Friday.

On Thursday, he’ll speak on diversity at Southfield Pavilion. He’ll bring his trademark Jamaican-flavored repertoire to the Detroit Opera House on Friday.

“He exemplifies what we can all be as individuals if we put our humanitarian efforts into appropriate energies,” says Rosalind Lullove Cooperman of September Moon Production Network, which helped organize this week’s programs.

These events and a youth conference on Saturday are sponsored by the Southfield Community Foundation and the National Conference for Community and Justice. The organizations are committed to nurturing and preserving diversity. This is the first such event they have hosted.

“Diversity is an experience to be celebrated and not an experience to be feared,” Belafonte says. “We have laws in this country that made segregation legal and put standards on people based on color and gender. All those ills have yet to be resolved — they are glaring, waiting to be administered to some final place.”

He speaks passionately about the Amadou Diallo case in New York; Rodney King in Los Angeles; Matthew Shepard in Wyoming; James Byrd, who died after being dragged behind a truck in Jasper; Texas, and Southern churches that have been burned.

Still a star

Belafonte hasn’t had a Top 40 hit in decades and his television appearances are rare. But his last national tour seven years ago drew full houses from Los Angeles to Cape Cod. His popularity endures, he says, because his music creates a sense of community.

“My audiences sing with me like it is their last opportunity to sing,” Belafonte says. “They are loud and lusty and leave the theater feeling good about having a good time, and are ready to greet their lives. They leave feeling like they are on the right path and that there is stuff to celebrate.”

He says his Detroit concert will include his classics, and songs from his new album (still unnamed) to be released Sept. 1. Good friend Carlos Santana joins him on the album, as well as other American pop artists he wants to keep secret for now.

“The album is filled with the exotic delights of the music of Brazil, the Caribbean and Africa, intertwined with my own particular way of doing it,” he says.

Belafonte campaigned for President Bill Clinton, but has yet to choose a candidate in this year’s presidential election.

“I am still looking over what is being offered and beyond the rhetoric,” he says. “Some politicians are chameleons, changing colors to fit their environment.”

But Belafonte is for real and that is what makes him so special to Detroiters who have been following his music for years.

“I am not, today, as much a fan of his music as I am a fan of the man,” says George Francis, a 57-year-old senior vice president at Blue Cross-Blue Shield in Southfield, an event sponsor.

He first saw Belafonte in the 1954 film, “Carmen Jones,” the all-black revamp of “Carmen” with Dorothy Dandridge.

“I think of him as being a class person, someone you can trust to do the right thing when no one else is looking,” Francis says. “I think of him as being a person of peace. I think of him as someone who understands the essence of justice and is willing to speak forthrightly about it. All that transcends his music.”

Fighting racism

Belafonte has experienced his share of racial problems.

He has been denied access to nightclubs because of his race and also faced housing discrimination. After being told he couldn’t rent an apartment in New York, he bought the entire building. He has faced charges of acting too white.

Throughout his career he has found time to pursue higher callings.

He helped organize the 1985 “We Are the World” recording to raise money for starving people in Africa.

“I feel strongly for Africa and millions were dying,” he says. “I was sickened by our indifference, because the politicians and society weren’t doing anything. So I had to turn to the cultural community, which I knew very well.”

Over the years he became particularly passionate in the fight against apartheid. In 1990, Oliver Tambo, president of the African Nation Congress, asked Belafonte to handle the details of Mandela’s first U.S. visit.

He says the 11 days spent with Mandela “gave us an opportunity to see America at her most generous and inspired level. The remarkable success of that visit was a humbling experience.”

Woes and wins

Belafonte wasn’t always the leader. When he was 7, his mother sent him to Jamaica to escape the streets of Harlem. He bounced around from one group of relatives to another, never staying anywhere for more than a few weeks. He returned to Harlem at age 12, a scrawny misfit with a West Indian accent.

Troubled by dyslexia, he dropped out of high school and eventually joined the Navy during World War II at age 17. When he came home, he enrolled in classes in drama classes at the New School for Social Research.

“My classmates included Bea Arthur and Walter Matthau,” he says. “We didn’t know any of us would be stars, let alone all of us.”

On stage, it’s clear he embodies the notion of diversity. His array of singers and musicians is vibrant and colorful, not just in their African-inspired clothing, but in race.

“I have come to find out that it is putting the linchpin on your own prejudices that helps others put the linchpin on theirs,” says Belafonte, admitting that in the past he has made derogatory remarks about people because because of their skin color or sexual orientation.

But concerts like those at the Fisher Theatre early in his career resound with him. The city outside might have been culturally divided, but inside was a world of its own, where color didn’t matter.

“I was able to come to Detroit and help them break that social barrier because my audiences were quite diverse,” he says. “It was a privilege to see that community go through that violence and now be in a process of healing. But it is always going to be healing because there is still a lot of contentiousness.”

Harold George Belafonte Jr.

* Born: March 1, 1927 in New York City

* Education: Dropped out of high school. Actors Studio; American Negro Theatre

* Career highlights: 1954 Tony, best supporting actor in a musical. His 1955 album, “Calypso,” was the first album in the nation to sell more than a million copies. Emmy for “Tonight with Belafonte,” 1959-60; Grammy for Record of the Year for “We Are the World,” 1985. National Medal of Freedom, 1994; founding board member of the Peace Corps; served as chairman of the New York State Martin Luther King Jr. Commission; created the New York State Martin Luther King Jr. Institute for Non-Violence; produced and performs in an eight-hour miniseries for ABC based on the Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch’s books, “Parting the Waters” and “Pillar of Fire.” It will air in January 2001; currently serving as Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF.

* Personal: Lives in New York with wife of 43 years, Julie Robinson Belafonte. Four children, including Adrienne, 49, and Shari, 45, from previous marriage with Marguerite Mazique; David, 41, and Gina, 38. Three grandchildren: Rachel, Brian and Maria.

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