SACRAMENTO – In honor of slain civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., UC Davis has invited legendary actor/activist Harry Belafonte to speak at the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall on Jan. 17 at 8 p.m.
Belafonte began his career as a singer and actor. He was dubbed the “King of Calypso” during the 1950s for popularizing the Caribbean musical style and “The Banana Boat Song,” with his signature lyric, “Day-O.” It was released in 1956 and became the first LP to sell more than a million copies. However, Belafonte would later use his fame and celebrity to advance civil rights causes.
Belafonte’s interest in humanitarian efforts peaked after meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time in 1956. Belafonte remained a close friend and confidant of Dr. King until his tragic death on April 4, 1968.
Today, at 86 years old, Belafonte, who has received numerous honors, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace prize and the Nelson Mandela Courage Award, remains an outspoken critic against social injustice.
Belafonte’s appearance at the Mondavi Center will include a question-and-answer session moderated by Lorena Oropeza, associate professor of history at UC Davis.
OBSERVER Correspondent Lana K. Wilson-Combs recently spoke with Belafonte by phone to discuss his legendary career. Belafonte also set the record straight regarding his recent controversial comments about music stars Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And he talked at length about his friendship with Dr. King and his thoughts on what the civil rights leader might say about the plight of Blacks in America today.
Q: What have you enjoyed the most, your entertainment career or your social activism?
A: I love them both the same. I’ve always considered myself an activist first. So I see myself as an activist who really became an entertainer. My celebrity platform allowed me to do more as an activist. So they were very connected for me.
Q: As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther’s King Jr’s legacy this month, and reflecting back on your friendship with Dr. King, what do you think he’d say about the state of Black America today?
A: The way that Dr. King approached life, it’s not easy to know what he would say. His mind took us to places that ordinary people couldn’t. Having said that, I believe Dr. King would have broadened our discourse. I think his movement today would have more boundaries and rules. There would not have been such leniency in the Black community like it is now when it comes to the language that we use like calling women hos and bitches. This unbridled use of language has inhibited our movement as a people. I have to question where the indignation from our churches and educational institutions are on this issue.
Q: How did that entire firestorm between you, Beyoncé and Jay-Z come about?
A: First off, there wasn’t any animus on my part toward Beyoncé and Jay-Z. I was recently at a film festival in Locarno, Switzerland by the press corps. I was asked by the press if I thought the world was better off today than during the civil-rights revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I responded by saying that there was little doubt that our movement changed the world, as we knew it. Dr. King and the non-violence revolution altered the global landscape. I told them that in the goals we set for ourselves in our movement, we never lost a battle. Martin Luther King Jr. knew and revered the artist. Even as he enriched our legacy with his own storytelling, he knew and believed that the service rendered by artists was critical to our movement and among other things, would inspire while filling the well of knowledge needed for the children of generations to come.
The press interviews lingered awhile on questions of artists and activism, and in responding to inquiries I, at one point, identified some of the artists I most admired as activists: Danny Glover, Sean Penn, Mike Farrell, Susan Sarandon, Alfre Woodard, to name but a few.
But then the exchange began to focus specifically on high-profile African American artists. Because they sit at the top of the list, I was asked in particular about Jay-Z and Beyoncé. I made the point that the absence of high-profile Blacks in the political struggle concerning the issues of race, poverty, and the disenfranchisement of the poor is disappointingly evident. From the highest pinnacles of Wall Street to the kings and queens of entertainment, to the gods and goddesses of sports, never before at these levels have we boasted such large numbers of Black participants.
I think Dr. King would be concerned if not disapproving of those artists who have gained high celebrity and powerful status and not used it wisely. I think he would have seen it as immoral to not speak out on violence against Black women — or any women — to not address the high school and college drop-out rate in the African American community and the large number of Black men who are incarcerated. I think he would want these artists to use their songs and movies to help change that paradigm.
Q: Does it bother you when people question your outspokenness?
A: No. I’ve always been confident in my own viewpoints and am content in my moral space. It’s just a part of me and who I am.
Q: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Quentin Tarantino’s new movie “Django Unchained.” What did you think of the film?
A: I felt “Django Unchained” was gratuitously violent. Today, our youth are so excited by violence and evil is something that’s hard to contain. Of course Dr. King was a man of non-violence. My feeling is, if you’re given a platform to make movies of this nature, why not tell stories of someone like Frederick Douglass, rather than a wretched victim.
Q: Is there any movie that really impressed you?
A: “Lincoln.” I absolutely loved it. I praised it to the highest when it first came out. I thought the humanity of Lincoln was brilliantly displayed. It was an extremely well done movie.
Q: Looking back on your illustrious career, do you have any regrets?
A: Yes. I wish I had more time. These 86 years have flown by. I’ve done a lot with them so far, but would love to continue the good fight.
Editor’s Notes: Tickets to see Harry Belafonte at the Mondavi Center Jan. 17 are are $35-$64 general admission, $17.50-$32 .00 for students and are available at www.mondaviarts.org or by calling 530-754-2787.
By Lana K. Wilson-Combs