Transition 92 - Featured Article 2
A conversation with Harry Belafonte
Say the name Harry Belafonte at a dinner party, and some aging hipster will break into a plummy chorus of “Day-O” That Belafonte can still be thought of as a camp icon is more than a little unfortunate. If they dug a little deeper, the same people who write Harry Belafonte off as a silk-shirted purveyor of pseudo-Caribbean schlock might just as easily see him as one of the twentieth century’s bona fide organic intellectuals. When you get right down to it, even “The Banana Boat Song”—commonly known as “Day-O”—dramatizes the drudgery of alienated labor in the colonial produce trade.
In some sense, though, Belafonte’s rather one-dimensional reputation isn’t surprising. Pop stars are doomed to be remembered as caricatures of themselves, and Belafonte helped invent the very notion of pop stardom. He was the first artist ever to sell a million albums in one year, and for the better part of two decades, Harry Belafonte was everywhere: his name sold out nightclubs and concert halls; his face emblazoned playbills and movie posters and magazine covers; his performances brought home a Tony, an Emmy, and Grammy after Grammy. Though he’s spent much of the past thirty years working in the wings as a producer, when he takes center stage he can still pack them in. Then there are his progressive credentials: after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Belafonte refused to perform in southern states. A close friend and confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., he worked as spokesman, strategist, benefactor, and fundraiser for the civil rights movement. By the end of the fifties, he’d joined the struggle against South African apartheid; in this capacity, he would introduce exiled musicians like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela to American audiences, cofound the Trans-Africa lobby with Randall Robinson, and arrange Nelson Mandela’s celebratory visit to the U.S. in 1990. For the past fifteen years, Belafonte has also been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, focusing his most recent efforts on the AIDS epidemic among South African children.
It’s tempting to tally these accomplishments in two separate columns, as if the entertainer and the activist were parallel personae, or celebrity merely a convenient platform for social action. But Belafonte maintains that the two strands are tightly interwoven. His whole career, he says, has been an attempt to reconnect African Americans to their diasporic heritage, while insisting upon their central place in American culture. Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls the thrill of watching Belafonte’s coolly provocative performance as guest host of the Tonight Show in 1968. At that tense moment in American history, says Gates, Belafonte seemed “the perfect hybrid of popular culture and political conscience.”
Of course there are those who regard any such hybrid as a doomed compromise—at times, even Belafonte himself seems to hold this opinion. Still, Belafonte has succeeded in the rather paradoxical task of bringing “folk” to the masses. And the folk and the masses are not terms Belafonte throws around lightly: they’re informed by the leftist ideologies he grew up with in the 1930s, and they’re central to his own old-school cultural politics, which sees art as a tool of enlightenment, music as an instrument for erasing racial prejudice and building race pride.
Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927, but his mother, alarmed by the race riots of 1935, moved the family to her native Jamaica for a stretch of his childhood. (They returned to New York in 1939, when England went to war against Germany.) After dropping out of high school, Belafonte did a stint in the Navy, eventually joining the American Negro Theater (where he met Sidney Poitier) and enrolling in a master class in drama at the New School (where his classmates included Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis). Work for black actors was sparse, though, and in 1949 a friend who’d heard him sing persuaded him to perform at a midtown nightclub’s amateur night. Much to Belafonte’s surprise, the dare led to a gig, then good notices in Down Beat and Variety, which earned him further bookings around the country. But the promising debut turned out to be a false start: uninspired by his jazz-pop material and disenchanted with his prospects, Belafonte called it quits. He took a year off, and when he emerged from the wilderness, he’d transformed himself into a folk singer.
Belafonte may have decided that his chances were better against Burl Ives and Josh White than Mel Torme and Billy Eckstine, with whom he’d been frequently compared. Just the same, it was a singularly inauspicious moment for anyone, let alone a black man with radical sympathies, to launch a career in folk. To begin with, late 1951 was roughly the midway point in the transition from swing to rock, and while many musical styles were fighting for the swing throne, folk no longer looked like a contender. The Weavers, who’d had an enormous hit in 1950 with an anodyne cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene,” were now being hounded as communist subversives, and all the African American folk singers from the forties were implicitly tarred with the same brush—tainted, like the Weavers, by their association with the left-wing People’s Songs cooperative. Indeed, McCarthy’s witch—hunt was reaching its stormy peak, and African Americans caught their share of bad weather. Josh White had caved before the House Un-American Activities Committee, as had Langston Hughes. Paul Robeson, an unrepentant fellow-traveler and a particular idol of the young Belafonte, had been all but lynched at a People’s Songs-sponsored concert in Westchester County two years earlier, and now his career was being systematically destroyed. Belafonte’s other hero, W E. B. Du Bois, had been arrested by the State Department in 1950 on trumped-up charges of serving as a “foreign agent.” Under these circumstances, who could blame Belafonte for dressing his folk music in satin shirts and tight trousers and all the other accoutrements of show business?
At the same time, his slick presentation was a challenge to one of the folk-purist articles of faith: it implicitly questioned the notion that “the folk,” particularly “the black folk,” made no distinction between their lives and their art—that their lives were their art. Belafonte was a consummate performer, a professional, and he never let you forget it. And while he was a passionate critic of capitalism, he realized that folk music could no longer afford to shun the fame and fortune bestowed by commercial success. The shrewdness of his gambit was borne out at the box office. Within months, he was playing extended engagements to soldout rooms; record companies, Broadway producers, and movie studios all came calling.
As his career took wing, he also used his innocuous image to sneak some subversive ideas under the McCarthyist radar, camouflaging his internationalism with a cosmopolitan repertoire. At the same time, he was able to turn American nationalism to his advantage: in that hyperpatriotic era, Belafonte realized he could promote African American music by affirming that black folk cultures were not un-American but paradigmatically American—to be antiblack was, in some sense, to be anti-American. So in 1954, at the height of his early fame, he conceived of a project that would prove his point.
At first Belafonte envisioned it as a touring show representing the historical variety of black contributions to American oral and musical culture. Next, it was to form part of a series of television specials devoted to a broad survey of Americana. But eventually it took shape as a multivolume record album—a counterpart, perhaps, to Harry Smith’s idiosyncratic Anthology of American Folk Music, which had appeared on Folkways Records in 1952. (In its earliest incarnation, Belafonte’s album was to be titled Anthology of Negro Folk Music.) Following the phenomenal success of his Calypso album, Belafonte got the go-ahead from RCA, and after several more years of preparation (archival sources were largely nonexistent, so he set out to “reconstruct” the music in the studio), recording began in earnest in 1961. The project’s scope kept growing, however: eventually it would aim to survey the musical culture of African Americans from the time of their arrival in America until the turn of the twentieth century. By the time it was finished another ten years had passed, and the cultural landscape had changed. A skittish Reader’s Digest pulled out of a long-standing partnership to market and distribute the anthology (now named New World A-Comin’), and the project was shelved. It languished in the vaults for nearly thirty years, until Bertelsmann, RCA’s new corporate parent, revived Buddha Records, an old bubblegum-pop label, for the express purpose of mining the RCA archives. When they stumbled upon Belafonte’s anthology Buddha executives were fairly seized with missionary zeal. They labored for almost three years, and although there was one final, horrible obstacle—the anthology was released on September 11, 2001—they eventually managed to bring Belafonte’s gospel to the world.
Earnestly conceived by Belafonte and his collaborators, lovingly reassembled by Buddha’s engineers and producers, and superbly packaged by International Paper, The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Block Music received justifiably respectful notice from critics, who praised it in the reverent language reserved for outsized projects by living legends. (Grammy nominations were a foregone conclusion.) It features stunning performances by folksingers both amateur and professional—Erzaline Jenkins and Bessie Jones as well as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee—though soul singer Gloria Lynne and jazz crooner Joe Williams offer some epiphanies, as well. While Belafonte mainly takes a back seat, he saves two of the most sublime numbers, “Hark ’E Angel” and “Wonderful Councillor” for himself. It’s a remarkably catholic compilation: The Long Road to Freedom includes eighteenth—century black Creole music and post-Civil War minstrel tunes alongside chestnuts like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “John Henry.”
Yet like most sacred texts, The Long Road to Freedom is also a bit strange. Its governing aesthetic, for instance, is more Fisk Jubilee Singers than Georgia Sea Islands: musical director Leonard DePaur tends to recreate musical history as if he were staging a Broadway show. And then there is the musty odor of its antiquated mission. This anthology was addressed to a rather different cultural moment, of course, so we can’t help but receive it as a kind of time capsule that tells as much about America (and about Harry Belafonte) between 1954 and 1971 as about black music before 1900. Belafonte has held on to a faith in the humanizing power of culture—particularly in its ability to foster sympathy and understanding across cultures—that might seem quaint if it weren’t so fervent, and if the alternative weren’t so bleak.
Now, Belafonte is hardly the first person to try to prove African Americans’ humanity by demonstrating the greatness of their art. Nor is he the first to see them as the “potential salvation of commerce—ridden, soulless America” (as historian Steven Watson paraphrased the views of Greenwich Village intellectuals of the 1920s), or to hear their music as the supreme embodiment of American culture. In other words, to note that this vision is dated is also to acknowledge that it has roots. For Belafonte, roots still matter, especially in a world that’s grown dubious of them, and especially if what you’re rooted in is a diaspora. And so the anthology, for all its anachronism, couldn’t have appeared at a better time, for we now find ourselves at yet another of those moments when “roots culture” is on the rise. In 1959, writing with Nat Hentoff, Belafonte prophesied that “we may be close to a time when a repertory with roots will be much more common among popular singers than it is now [when] the exasperation and frustration of the times in which we now live will eventually level off and people will have the time and the peace of mind to come back to songs, with roots in their culture, and to create new ones, however urbanized, of real meaning.”
In retrospect, he was announcing the advent of the folk revival, which was right around the corner. But he might as well have been looking forward to the end of one century, and the beginning of the next. O brother, where art thou? Harry Belafonte’s known the answer all along.
MICHAEL ELDRIDGE: Listening to the Anthology, I was struck by the variety of it—the sense that black life in America has taken on so many different forms. That’s an idea that’s been important in your career, too.
HARRY BELAFONTE: You know, I came out of the West Indian community in Harlem. I didn’t move around in an environment of intellectuals or academics. But when I was thrown into the war, into a segregated division of the navy, our all-black unit was quite diverse, quite eclectic. There were bourgeois blacks, rich blacks, educated blacks, ignorant blacks, poor blacks, light-colored blacks, dark-colored blacks, et cetera . . .
ME: Diaspora in the flesh.
HB: But totally. And I gravitated—perhaps out of instinct, perhaps out of conscious choice—toward those who were expressing some interesting point of view on what it meant to be black and in that war. I listened to men who knew A. Philip Randolph, who knew Walter White, who were members of the NAACP. Our units were split up right after basic training; those who were the most educated, the most articulate, went on to become officers. I never finished high school, but my IQ score was so high that I fell in with a group of men who were high school graduates, even college graduates. We went to Hampton Institute to prepare for what they called the quartermaster corps—to take care of provisions and bookkeeping. But I didn’t get to do that—I was too rebellious. Finally, they made me a munitions loader, which was one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs you could have in the armed forces on the domestic side.
ME: That was the fate of a lot of black men in the service during World War II, right?
HB: Yes. And the men who were stuck with munitions loading were very bitter, very angry. And in our bitterness and anger we went out and got drunk. We wanted to beat up everybody we met, including each other. But there were also those of us that decided to study, to learn, to find out how to organize. We were asking, What would we become when we got out of there? How could we help make things different? So I began to read the Du Bois pamphlets and things that these college men had given to me. Du Bois made no room for remedial students; you had to struggle to understand what he said. But I made that struggle.
ME: In the early 1950s, when your career was taking off, a lot of newspaper and magazine stories took great pains to highlight your personal connection to West Indian folk music: “These were the songs that Belafonte heard in his youth, and they stayed with him;” and so on. But you made no secret of the fact that you’d actually come to folk music fairly late. In fact, your move from pop to folk, between 1950 and 1951, was largely the result of research in the Library of Congress. Throughout the 1950s, you even carried a tape recorder with you on tour, going out to gather material from chain gangs and sharecroppers. So how would you describe your connection to folk music? Is it a lived connection or a scholarly connection?
HB: I think there’s another dimension to this question. I had been a very serious student of theater. So rather than define me as somebody who moved from pop music to folk music—although that is the truth—you might say that the real driving force was my deep involvement with the literature of twentieth-century theater. Most of the theater before and during and shortly after World War II was driven by great social writers, great social thinkers: Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, along with the books of Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner and Baldwin. So although pop music satisfied a kind of a limited musical need, I was hunting for something that was closer to the literature and theater I had studied.
In the war, I had seen how propaganda was used in film and theater and songs and everything else—not only to inspire support for the war, but to explain the ideology of that war to the citizens. So when I came out of the service, I needed to extend that. I saw how much trouble this nation was in—what it was doing to Indians, to Hispanics, to women, and especially to black people. As an artist, how do you articulate this? I couldn’t really do it in the theater; I’m not a playwright. But in folk music, I found an opportunity to speak to issues of great human and social concern, and to do it in ways that were quite artful. In that tradition, I found people who did it magnificently, and they influenced me: Paul Robeson, Lead Belly, Josh White, Mahalia Jackson.
ME: Can you connect the dots, then? How, exactly, can culture—whether it’s pop culture or folk culture—lead to racial and social justice?
HB: Well, it depends on how you view what culture does. If you’re talking about Hollywood, then it does very little—as a matter of fact it may divide people more than it brings them together.
But as a kid growing up in New York City, I came to know the Jew through the culture of the Jew: I saw Jewish comics; I heard Jewish singers; I listened to stories told by the interpreters of Shalom Aleichem. At the same time, I was listening to Irish bards and folksingers, and I was reading the plays of Sean O’Casey. This was the culture that captivated the mind of a young black kid, born in poverty in Harlem, growing up in the plantations of Jamaica.
All of that put me in touch with worlds that I did not know, made me see how relevant these people were to my world—and how relevant I was to theirs. I became an instrument through which all this expressed itself. I commanded millions of people who listened to my voice. And I think millions of people have acted on that, to some degree or another. I brought them to the civil rights movement, and the civil rights movement brought them somewhere else. So if you look at culture—not the narrow Hollywood definition, but in its broadest and subtlest and most communicative sense—then you can see that culture is hugely relevant. And we suffer deeply in this country, trying to bridge divides, because we have stifled culture.
ME: So in your experience, culture can bridge ethnic divides if you’re open to its transformative power. But following that logic, racism would be rooted largely in a lack of compassion. That’s an old-fashioned view of culture that’s really quite hopeful—though perhaps not self-evidently true. How would you argue with the cynics?
HB: Well, in the early part of the twentieth century, culture was filled with the mission of telling the truth about the peoples of the world. The culture of Islam, the culture of the oppressed in Africa, the culture of the peasants in Latin America—they can still tell that kind of truth. But since culture has become the playground of commerce, and since commerce owns communication, it has determined the culture you get.
ME: When we think of folk artists, we usually think of people being born into a specific cultural circumstance and transmuting that culture into art. But with you, it was almost the other way around: you set out to find a cultural form that suited your artistic and political vision. What was that process like?
HB: In my youth, I listened to Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie and Big Bill Broonzy and others, and I was just stunned by the power and the beauty of it. And then, in the Library of Congress, I heard more songs, songs that helped me develop my own repertoire. The work I have done is quite eclectic, it sings the languages and themes of other cultures and other people. There’s no single thread tying it all together except the human thread.
ME: And yet what your early admirers especially liked about you was that you didn’t treat folk songs as solemn anthems or museum pieces; you brought out the drama in them, the theater.
HB: I brought out the contemporary in them.
ME: At that moment, the popular press was starting to dismiss folk singing with code words like “arty.” Variety gratefully wrote that you’d taken folk singing out of Greenwich Village and made it attractive to middlebrows and sophisticates, as well as bohemians and radicals. Was that a conscious strategy?
ME: Would you say you set out to commercialize your material by giving it this showbiz aesthetic?
HB: Well, I guess the fact that it became commercial means that it was commercialized. I wanted to use some cunning and find a way to introduce an art form into an environment that was extremely limited to be able to make a social and political statement to listeners without them suspecting it.
ME: By that point, of course, folk music was closely identified with the labor movement and the left.
HB: Yes, and it was the labor movement that created an environment where blacks were recognized for their contributions to American music. Prior to that, we lived in a very contained place: we were the blacks of the 1920s who did the Charleston; our purpose was to keep white folks happy and entertain them. The labor movement and the progressive environment of the 1930s—the WPA, the strikes and the bread riots, the antifascist movement in Spain—allowed black music and black art to be seen in its proper perspective.
This was right in the heyday of the folk song movement, Woody Guthrie and “This Land Is Your Land.” It was remarkable. And that’s what I grew up in. But after the war, when that period was over, America went on an imperialist march to dominate the world. If you were at all critical of America, you were branded a communist. There were very, very few black forces at work who stood up against that onslaught. Paul Robeson was one; W E. B. Du Bois was another. And when he was arrested, I was down at Foley Square, a young kid with a picket sign saying, “Release Dr. Du Bois.”
ME: Still, once your career took off, in spite of your rigorous research into folk musics and cultures, the public saw you mainly as a pop star. And in the mid-1950s, when you were at the heart of the calypso craze, the press promoted you as the “King of Calypso.” Although I know you resented that title . . .
HB: Let me hasten to add something that very few people have understood: I was never embarrassed that I lived in a place—the Caribbean—that gave rise to this cultural form. What I resisted and disliked intensely was the callous, indifferent, almost racist way in which marketing people defined me as the “King of Calypso,” with very little reverence for the fact that there was a place called Trinidad, a tradition called Carnival, and a history of great poets coming together and writing these very witty songs. Consequently there was a sense in the Caribbean that I was somehow complicit in the pirating of a culture. So I resisted that title, because I had not earned it, and they had no right to give it to me.
ME: At the same time—in part because of all this “King of Calypso” stuff—there was some criticism of the music you were making.
HB: You know, a lot of people said, “As a voice of the Caribbean, he doesn’t sound very authentic.” I understood what they meant. But why blame me for failing to be something that I never set out to be? When I took the music beyond its “authentic” boundaries, it spawned a whole new audience—an audience that had never existed before.
What bothered me most was the invocation of authenticity as the measure by which music is to be critiqued. If you’re going to look at it from that perspective, the most authentic song is, “Ugh!” It was sung by men in loincloths, bashing each other with clubs. Everything since then is just a variation on “Ugh!” So what is “authentic” art?
What I said is, “Why should I be limited by how you think I should sound, when there’s a whole public out here that says, ’We like what we hear’?” If you look at the New York Times and the Herald Tribune, the drama critics who wrote about me when I did theater back in the early 1950s understood what I was doing. And they rewarded it. Most journalists are lazy; they are limited by their own experience. But you have to stay the course if you believe in what you do. And I’m still here today.
ME: I wonder if we could talk about your “coming out” as a politically committed artist. Nowadays, you’re known as an outspoken commentator on everything from racial politics to U.S. foreign policy to the flaws of capitalism. But when you were starting out, you weren’t doing overtly political stuff, you weren’t leading audiences in rousing choruses of “Which Side Are You On” or “We Shall Overcome.” Did you feel you had to put your radical sympathies under cover for the sake of your career?
HB: There’s no question. There was a conscious awareness of how hostile the environment was, and how clever you’d have to be to outsmart the predator. So there was selection and choice. But there was never compromise in the content. The fact is that I didn’t sing a lot of protest songs back then because most of that material had been written or covered by others, and because I saw another way to move my image and my cause through the ranks of the human family. The question was this: if you bring to the table prejudices that cause you to question my very humanity, how do I get you to see me as a man? Suppose I sing “Scarlet Ribbons” or “Try to Remember” or “Take My Mother Home” or “Danny Boy” or “Hava Nageela,” and you’re moved by the subject. You take a step back and look at the man singing it—the man you’d thought of as merely black, or Caribbean, or American, or political, or whatever. And you’re forced to square those preconceptions against the fact that I’ve moved you. Have I not won you over in a more substantive way than if I’d just...
ME: Shouted a slogan.
HB: Right. So, yes, a lot of people say, “Oh, we accept him because he’s so good-looking, so close to white; his features are so Eurocentric. That’s the kind of Negro I’d like to have my son be friends with, that’s the kind of Negro I’d like my daughter to date.”
ME: You were kind of a “stealth” radical, then?
HB: Yeah, well, I feel it really is incumbent upon me to make you feel that I’m more like you than not—that my fears are exactly the same as yours, and my hopes should be the same as yours, too. Because I really want to take nothing from you—but I would like to lead you to another place, since you’ve taken so much from me.
ME: I’d like to ask you about the gestation of The Long Road to Freedom, about the cultural context that led you to believe that something like this was important—or even possible—when you conceived the project over forty years ago.
HB: Well, everything that I loved as a child was art that identified itself with a social mission. There was Charlie Chaplin. In the Depression, every poor person in the world delighted in his ability to outsmart the rich, to outsmart oppression. It was there in all the great writers of the time, but it was also there in the dance of Katherine Dunham, and the painting of Diego Rivera and Charles White, the music that was being sung and played at the Apollo Theater.
ME: So how did you persuade the record company to underwrite a project with a similar social mission?
HB: I had asked George Marek at RCA if he would be interested in a series of works that would reflect the cultures of other places in the world. I started with the Caribbean because I was more familiar with that environment, and because when I looked at the music from that community that was getting heard here in the United States, I found it wholly unacceptable. It was a one-dimensional kind of experience. Most of the calypsonians who enjoyed any popularity here at all were liked for their sexual double—entendres, which struck me as a kind of “anti-black” content. I saw us very differently, and I’d grown up with very different songs. So I went to that source. And in the beginning, there was great resistance from within RCA. But George Marek stayed with the project, and I was making enough money for RCA that he could convince them to let me do it. When the Calypso album finally came out, everybody was astonished at how successful it was: it was the first album ever to sell a million copies in a year. All of a sudden, the world was delighting in the songs of this strange, exotic place called the Caribbean.
After that, Marek decided he would let me do another project, and he gave me more freedom. And I immediately thought that I must do a black anthology of American music, because no other culture had that same sense of diversity. So that’s how I started thinking about The Long Road to Freedom. When I found people like Leonard DePaur, and I developed relationships with people like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, I saw the opportunity to do this in a way that was a little different from the traditional methods of folk music. I wanted to create a historical chronology that would touch the high points of our experience and let the world know that this was a mere thread in a vast blanket of music and culture—and with these people involved, I had the chance to bring in art and musical mastery and high fidelity.
ME: You began recording the project in 1961 and it took ten years to finish. So why has it taken so long for the anthology to appear? And why now? I know the official story: the set didn’t appear in 1971, as originally planned, because the partnership between RCA and Reader’s Digest dissolved. But do you think there were political factors, too? For example, were you more openly identified with leftist causes in 1971 than you had been in 1954?
ME: Still, it seems a bit odd. That same year, the other major record labels brought out multivolume sets devoted to the Woodstock festival and to the Concert for Bangladesh. So why couldn’t RCA bring out a project you and they had worked on for ten years?
HB: Well, first of all, Woodstock was a white experience, and Bangladesh is a foreign country. It’s easy for us to engage with problems that don’t exist here. We can always have open discussions about Bangladesh, the same way we can have open discussions of human rights in China—just don’t talk about what’s happening here.
Also, George Marek died. He was an Austrian Jew, very much an intellectual, hugely sensitive to oppression. He loved culture, and he was very open toward all kinds of music. He was the man who signed Leontyne Price and me and Elvis Presley and Jefferson Airplane, all in the space of one decade. He made us feel as if the world could not exist without us. After he died, the new regime came in, the bottom-line boys from Harvard. At the same moment, the civil rights movement was at a crisis point and the antiwar movement was at its peak. Nobody wanted to be provoked on the subject of race.
ME: Things are different now, I suppose. I’ve read that some of BMG’s current executives were genuinely excited to rediscover this material. Just the same, BMG isn’t a charity organization. So I guess that’s why I’m curious about the timing of this. Does the anthology seem “safer” now? Or more marketable, somehow? What’s changed?
HB: What’s changed is that America is no longer legally segregated. What’s changed is that Colin Powell is secretary of state and Ken Chenault is CEO of American Express. What’s changed is that we have the Congressional Black Caucus. We have Michael Jordan, and black music dominates the pop charts, and we have black people at every level of public and private life. Moreover, we have this thing called “world music,” so that even as we contain Cuba with our blockades, one of the country’s most popular albums is Buena Vista Social Club.
ME: And there’s the so-called roots music revival, too. Ever since Smithsonian reissued Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music—or maybe even earlier—record labels have been rummaging through their archives and coming up with new boxed sets of old music, much of it black music.
HB: I just think there’s no more flour to be bleached. And when you’ve run out of bleach for the flour, you have to go back and deal with the flour itself. I mean, white society is dying from the cholesterol of its own design. Where are their books, where are their paintings, where are their philosophers, where are their poets, where are their singers? On the other hand, look at the developing world—its music, its art, its literature. White youth are sucking up everything out of the black ghetto—especially rap—because it’s the most interesting place to be.
ME: Why is it always black culture that’s called upon to fulfill this role?
HB: Because it is still the only culture—I mean, there are some exceptions—but in America it is still the only culture that’s a protest culture. It’s still the only culture in America that speaks out against inequity. And there’s a genuineness in black culture that makes people feel that they’re dealing with something far more authentic than what white culture produces on its own.
ME: Sure, but let’s take just two examples from my generation, going back twenty-five years: punk and hip-hop both emerged as underground movements that thought of themselves as being outside the mainstream, even antagonistic to it, and they both had a pretty well-articulated political consciousness. And yet it didn’t take all that long for corporate rock and corporate rap to co-opt that music and sell it right back to us. Nowadays, the cycle between opposition and co-optation has grown exceedingly short. How do you circumvent that?
HB: Well, I think it’s already being circumvented. When you go around the world, you see rap in Soweto, in Portuguese Africa, in French Africa, in Cuba, in Nicaragua, in Brazil. And that global rap culture has come back to New York. They had what they called a “hip-hop globalization” conference here, and rappers from around the world spoke about social content. Rap is reaching back to reclaim what it was when Afrika Barnbaataa and Melle Mel and those guys were doing it out of the South Bronx. So I think that the music is doing what you’re talking about—it’s reclaiming its truth, its identity, its social and political mission—and white kids are very much into it. It’s a culture of protest, it’s a culture of analysis, it’s a culture of difference, and it’s got a great beat.
ME: You’re talking about a commercial music returning to its origins as a true folk music. And I think that brings us back to your early career, when you were a pop star whose only real rival in the world of recorded music was Elvis Presley. Even if you weren’t singing protest songs, you went on record then with some fairly strong opinions about the mediocrity of commercial culture and the integrity of folk culture. Folk music, you said, was the spontaneous, organic expression of a people’s culture, and that was a type of expression that had become increasingly scarce under capitalism, as people consumed and produced music commercially rather than communally. Do you still feel that way now, almost fifty years later?
HB: More than ever. And I don’t shy away from the fact that my art was influenced by Marxism—that was the code of the day. The socialist ideal was what most culture in the world aspired to in the middle of the twentieth century. All of the artists I mentioned as the great voices of culture were socialist, or socialist-influenced.
ME: Nowadays, historians and cultural critics tend to be skeptical about concepts like “the authentic expression of a people’s culture,” just as you’re skeptical about the notion of a “pure” folk culture. Some of them have pointed out that many of our notions of “authenticity” and “tradition” and “the folk” were manufactured in order to serve an assortment of ideological ends. Yet there’s still this idea that black culture is the embodiment of everything vital and natural and pretechnological—the antithesis of Euro-American modernism. The Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite made a similar point when he dismissed ethno-musicologists like Alan Lomax, Samuel Charters, and Moe Asch as purveyors of “fakeways” rather than “folkways.” I’m up on my soapbox, I guess, but—
HB: Just don’t push me off mine! [They laugh.]
ME: It’s a deal. But does any of this temper your continued belief in folk music as the spontaneous expression of a people’s culture?
HB: I think there are contradictions, but I don’t know that the contradictions are total. If you take black music, if you take what has been traditionally described as the folk voice, what is unique about that voice is that there is a depth to its character. It takes time to develop. It’s something that is handed back and forth by people who mold that expression to define their pain, their hopes, their aspirations, their dreams.
On the other hand, commercial art insists on mass production and disposability, so that nothing lingers too long—you always have to get people to buy the next thing. After a while, you have to eliminate that long process of development. You don’t have the time, for example, to look for humanity in the midst of tragedy in order to evoke laughter. So you write something superficial and you trick the public into thinking it’s funny by putting in a laugh track. All that’s left is the packaging, because commercial art is not made through suffering and struggle and solidarity. And as a consequence, I think our culture is diminishing. Rather than looking for content to drive audiences, we have developed technology. Come and be razzle-dazzled by what mechanisms can do to your visual senses.
ME: But what’s the alternative? I think the other thing that Brathwaite was getting at had to do with people like Lomax, tramping around the world in order to “archive” and “preserve” other people’s cultures. A lot of people argue that the whole folkloric enterprise has certain colonialist undertones, inasmuch as it repeats the patterns of colonial rule: powerful people—usually powerful white people—marching off into various dark corners of the world and gathering up raw materials to take home and exploit for their own profit or enjoyment. For instance, Paul Simon was accused of neocolonialism and cultural imperialism for his work with South African musicians on the Graceland album. Did you ever have to worry about that kind of criticism?
HB: Sure. But so what? You know, I encouraged Paul Simon to go to South Africa. I arranged some of the meetings, and when Graceland came out, I was delighted that millions of people who had never paid much attention to that culture were all of a sudden alive to it. Granted, I found the content a little ...well, let me not criticize him. I thought there were a lot of things that could have been said, lyrically, which would have given us a greater sense of the environment from which those sounds came, and those things wouldn’t necessarily have disturbed Paul Simon’s style of writing.
ME: I guess you could argue that Simon was relatively upstanding about the whole affair: the concerts in support of the album seemed to be as much about Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba as they were about Paul Simon, and he arranged for them to get major-label releases in the States.
HB: Well, there are those who will tell you that had not the response from the ANC been so swift and intense, the Graceland tour might have turned out a little differently. So he took Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela on tour with him, and that took some of the venom out of the ANC’s sting. But incidentally the ANC never critiqued the content of Simon’s work, it critiqued the process. There was a certain arrogance in him saying, “I’m not political, I don’t get into politics.”
ME: He was involved in politics whether he wanted to be or not.
HB: Exactly. But still, Columbus came to this hemisphere, and despite all the villainy that he brought with him, that’s a fact of life. With Lomax, and others who went around the world in that colonial fashion, there are aspects of villainy: Lomax was a racist, et cetera. And yet this work was done, and we have this collection, and I don’t know who would have done it if he hadn’t. Thomas Jefferson and all those other slaveholders wrote a proclamation that has done much to design where mankind has gone in its evolution. Is all of that villainous, or is all of it positive? I don’t think we should reject the good because there was some bad, or ignore the bad because there was so much good. I think it’s both, and I think what we should do is talk honorably about both.
ME: Still, the whole business makes you wonder about how Americans get interested in “foreign” music. Over the past hundred years or so, there’s been a series of musical fads that seem to get so blurred in the popular imagination that they’ve become almost interchangeable. First there was rumba, then tango, then samba and calypso and mambo and cha-cha-cha and salsa and merengue—on and on it goes. Do you think Americans have a genuine desire to understand other cultures, or is it merely boredom with the perceived blandness of their own mainstream culture?
HB: I think it’s all of that, not any one explanation. You know, when you ran off your litany of musical genres, almost everything you mentioned has its roots in Africa. Now, if you look at “world music,” it often seems like a euphemism, a label for people who are still incapable, for racist reasons, of saying “this is African music” or “this is black music?” So, “world music” becomes a safe zone in which dominant society can domesticate something that it cannot resist. How much easier is it to say “world music” than it is to say “the music of Africa” or “the music of a people who come from a slave diaspora”? If you can’t understand the evolution of music in Cuba and how deeply rooted it is in slavery, then that’s unfortunate, because you are still unable to understand that the thing you enjoy comes from struggle with oppression.
That’s why I say in the anthology: Look at the beauty of this music, listen to these voices, listen to what people are saying about their suffering over a couple of hundred years. And if you like what you hear, if you are moved by what you hear, doesn’t that make you want to know more about how this music came to be?
ME: Why do you think we always seem to need some familiar, established figure to act as our interpreter? How come it takes Paul Simon to introduce us to South African music, or David Byrne to tutor us about Brazilian music? For that matter, why did we need Harry Belafonte to introduce us to calypso?
HB: Because our culture teaches us to be highly skeptical and suspicious of what we don’t know. We wait for someone to tell us it’s safe—that’s what America’s all about. Anything that is different is going to be held in abeyance until someone comes along and tells us it’s acceptable.
ME: Part of your stated purpose for The Long Road to Freedom is to convey the complexity and sophistication of African American history and culture and the centrality of that experience to the American experience at large. Do you think that mission is still as relevant or as urgent now as it was in 1954, when you first conceived the project, or 1961, when you began recording it, or 1971, when it was finally finished? Since then, we’ve seen the establishment of African American Studies programs in dozens of American universities, and the inclusion of the history and culture of black Americans and other underrepresented groups in other, more traditional disciplines; we’ve also seen the advent of Black History Month and the publication of several major anthologies of African American literature, and even the release of other historic collections of black music. Couldn’t you argue that this part of the battle has already been won?
HB: I think we’re still fighting the battle. I don’t believe that the battle will have been won until the art of Africa and the culture of the African diaspora is fully embraced and understood. Even today, I think that black Americans are more Eurocentric in our values and our interests than we are Afrocentric. First I was colored, then I was Negro, then I was black, and now I’m African American—a whole lifetime spent in search of the right terminology. And yet, you ask most black Americans: Where’s Mali? Who is the president of Kenya? Forget it! And what can they tell you about Caribbean culture, or about Brazil?
Now is this something to be ashamed of? Have we done something sinful? Absolutely not. This is a symptom of the devastation of our slave experience—we’re the only slave group in the world that still lives inside the belly of the beast. Everybody else has extricated themselves: Brazilians, Cubans, Jamaicans, Africans. And they have created societies that do not aspire to values that were set by their former slave masters. Yet here in America, our tastes are very Eurocentric: when we leave the ghetto, the minute we get a buck, we’re moving to where white people live, rather than focusing our attention on the rehabilitation of our own communities, rather than letting the power of our own culture and art come to life. So when Miriam Makeba or Youssou N’Dour or Salif Keita or Gilberto Gil or Milton Nascimento comes here, we have no frame of reference—our taste buds are not alive.
ME: You’re saying that black Americans haven’t succeeded in achieving some kind of syncretic “American” identity and also haven’t succeeded in achieving any kind of diasporic consciousness.
HB: Yes—as a matter of fact, that’s perfectly put. We sit, straddling—that’s why we are so schizophrenic. It’s a kind of split personality disorder.
ME: What about you? From your very first appearance as a folk singer, you adopted a deliberately cosmopolitan approach. And in your career as an activist you’ve been concerned with issues that span the breadth of the diaspora. Yet from the very first song you wrote and performed professionally—“Recognition”—all the way through to the release of The Long Road to Freedom, you’ve also identified yourself as an African American. Looking back, how would you characterize your relationship with African America?
HB: I would like to eliminate the “America” part and keep the “African” part. I’d say I identify with African culture and African diaspora culture, and African Americans are a part of it. Even on my earliest albums, you’ll hear this: the spirituals I sang—“My Lord, What a Morning,” “Take My Mother Home”—were sung in an African American voice, and yet it was clear that they were African-rooted.
ME: It sounds as if you’d like to be rid of the national component a0ltogether.
HB: Had my mother not sent me to Jamaica for much of the first twelve years of my life, I would never have understood how international we are. Because when I was thrust back into Harlem, back into the black American rhythm of life, there was a constant sense that we were very much alike. And even within my own community—immigrant blacks living in black America—it was curious that we sought to see the differences in one another, when there was so much that bound us together. And then, of course, when you began to hear about people like Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie, and you saw what happened to people like Robeson and Du Bois, there was no other way to see us except as part of a diaspora. And that, I thought, was where our strengths truly lay.
ME: Which makes the history of sometimes testy relations between American blacks and West Indian American blacks all the more unfortunate.
HB: Or the strained relations between American blacks and African blacks. When I go to Africa today—South Africa, or Nigeria, or wherever I go—I find huge resistance to the ... I mean, there is some envy of our material goods and whatnot, but by and large, I find there’s very little about black Americans that Africans want. In intellectual circles in South Africa, for example, there’s vigorous criticism of black Americans, and a strong unwillingness to be like them.
ME: When you see rifts like this, even within the diaspora, is it realistic to think that music—even folk music—can repair the damage? It makes me wonder about something Charles Shaar Murray once said—about how whites in America like black music just fine, they don’t like black people. White folks will gladly pay to hear you sing “Day-O,” but that doesn’t mean they want to live in the same neighborhood or send their kids to the same schools as you do. As someone whose audiences are, in fact, largely white—a fact you’ve noted quizzically, maybe even ruefully, now and then—is it hard for you to remain optimistic about the potential of music?
HB: I think that black culture commands a global audience because of the sheer power of it, the beauty of it—it is hard to dismiss. And because it brings so much delight, it can easily be embraced. The physical presence of black people, however, is something else: it reflects a history of oppression that white people don’t want to deal with, not because they wouldn’t like to see the oppression go away, but they don’t want to pay the price for it to be gone. “Entertain me, don’t agonize me”: we play that role every day, and it’s how we’ve achieved most of our economic success. We’re paid most for what we do as entertainers, not for what we do as scientists or professionals or intellectuals or provocateurs. As black Americans in the midst of all this, we face a dilemma. First and foremost: What are we? If we are Americans, then what does the flag mean to us? And are we going to let this country be defined by the Bush ilk, or by the likes of Dr. King—whom we have allowed to become just a holiday rather than a living, breathing presence, a source of genuine inspiration? Why isn’t Dr. King or Robeson or someone like that in our pantheon? We have no gods—except for white gods.
And I don’t think these problems will just will themselves away. I sat the other night with Chris Tucker and some other people from the young black culture. These guys treat me with real reverence and respect. And I said, “You guys have really just dropped the ball here. You’re all making $26 million a movie—which in itself is vulgar, no matter who you are. But how much do you need to insulate yourself from poverty before you can begin to think about where to put your energy and your celebrity and your voice to stimulate that which is the best in us?” They kind of look at you. They heard the question, but they don’t have an answer. But I know a lot of them are grappling with it, because they say, “Can we meet with you again?”
ME: I suppose your own career is a model of how to combine entertainment and activism—not just fundraisers, but real political work. Your work in South Africa, for example—how did that come about?
HB: I was one of the founders of Trans-Africa. We needed a lobbying force in this country to speak up about relationships with Africa and the African diaspora. We were dealing not only with South Africa but with the independence of Africa in general.
As for my work with the global antiapartheid movement, that arose because of my relationship with the ANC and Oliver Tambo. I chaired the committee that brought Nelson Mandela here, and I shaped his itinerary: what unions he met with, what churches he visited, what synagogues he went to, his congressional visit. But this wasn’t a stand-alone project; it was a natural extension of where I came from: Dr. King, Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m naming the luminaries because they’re the most easily identifiable. But most of the people that I’ve worked with are people you never heard of, people with no college education who made a critical difference.
Right now I’m working with gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, in the American prison system. This system—the privatization of the prisons, the disenfranchisement of exfelons—is part of the same instrument of oppression that existed when I was a boy. It’s the same banks, the same people, the same villainy.
ME:I also want to ask you about the World Conference against Racism last summer in Durban, which you attended. What dominated the media reports here in the States was the U.S.’s decision not to participate. But even some commentators on the left dismissed the conference as a colossal waste of time.
HB: Those critics on the left who dismissed that conference as irrelevant and said nothing good could come of it—I’ve long seen those people as dilettantes who have no stomach for getting into the heart of the struggle, who are too cowardly to surrender their image as liberals or as positive thinkers, even though they have long since given up their moral responsibility. In some ways, I find those people much more problematic than the people who are clearly evil. So I don’t even bother with them. I go where I have to go.
I would readily accept the view that America’s absence from the conference was a disgrace. But that’s not the whole story. We need to understand that this wasn’t just some casual snub, instigated by a disgruntled Mr. Colin Powell, acting as the house slave for George Bush. It was calculated. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian question, and it wasn’t just that they didn’t want to discuss reparations. There is a whole list of issues that are not to be discussed: sexism, the feminist movement, globalization, the World Bank, the IMF. The people who control this country don’t want to be exposed to that kind of criticism.
What disturbs me is not so much that all this villainy exists—as a matter of fact, not to expect it would be naive. What bothers me is the extent of our capitulation. I don’t see any fight left in the black caucus in the Congress, I don’t see it among intellectuals and the presidents of universities. I see no institution where our passion for political articulation and political unity still survives.
ME: Do you think that’s because people have been worn down or disillusioned by the lack of progress over the years? Is it because black people in America are divided along class lines or ethnic lines? Or is it something else?
HB: I think it’s all of the above; I don’t think it’s any one thing. But mostly it’s that the enemy has successfully led the broad population—black, white, yellow, Native American, everyone—to embrace a value system that has crippled our capacity for social agitation and dissent. We’re all trapped in the abyss of greed. Black people are going to have to understand that the issue here is more than race. We are the souls, we are the people that must save the soul of this nation. But like the rest of the country, we’re caught up in the rush to the well of materialism. Therefore, we are willing to watch Rwanda, Congo, the upheaval of societies in the Caribbean, and even our sixty-nine churches burnt down, and the election stolen from our black voters in Florida—all without a whimper. It is tragic. And it’s going to be very costly.
Dr. King said it clearly. The very last conversation we had, he said, “Harry, I think we’re integrating into a burning house.” I asked him, “Well, how do we fix that?” And he said, “We’re going to have to become firemen.”
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