Belafonte for President
For those who see Harry Belafonte as a pleasant purveyor of Calypso, a precursor to the rougher earthier music of his fellow Jamaican Bob Marley, his Hamlin Lecture would have been a salutory jolt. Belafonte, son of Harlem as much as Jamaica, veteran of the WWII US Navy, was and is as much a champion of civil and human rights as any of the political figures of his generation. His vehicle was indeed the calypso, with which he became the first artist to sell a million albums in a year, much to the surprise of RCA. ‘America is a culturally rigid place. The hugeness of its diversity is matched by the narrowness of its thinking.’ There were moments when even he was taken aback by how easily Caribbean music transferred to other regions. ‘There nothing quite as strange as seeing 50,000 Japanese singing the Banana Boat Song.’
His real motivation, though, came and comes not from the pursuit of fame but from the determination that art can lead the way in the fight for equality and mutual respect. He remembers the shock of coming out of the war (when the US Navy was still segregated) and finding that ‘the freedoms we were fighting for were not expected to be applied to people of colour.’ He then encountered Raul Robeson, in many ways the icon of the Black American left.
The first meeting, when Belafonte was acting in a New York fringe production of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (adapted to Jamaican accents) was indelible. It also sums up for all artists their function and duty. ‘We are the gatekeepers of truth,’ Robeson said. The arts do not present the world as it is but as it should be. From that stems the need to be radical and rebel. Robeson’s dictum, passed on by Belafonte, is like an extension of the BBC’s motto. ‘Artists are here,’ he says, ‘to entertain, to delight, to inform, to inspire and instruct.’