Harry Be­la­fonte: Stylish and Bat­tle-Tested

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT -

Harry Be­la­fonte has been at the fore­front of so­cial change for more than half a cen­tury. Now he’s mount­ing a mu­sic fes­ti­val in At­lanta to pro­mote his goals.

The ad­jec­tive ‘stylish’ de­scribes Harry Be­la­fonte per­fectly. First, there is his pres­ence. This is a man who could look equally com­pelling in a tux or a ba­sic tank top and whose cul­tural dex­ter­ity en­ables him to wear ei­ther to fit the so­cial world where he is in­ter­act­ing. Then, there are the 89-year-old icon’s pol­i­tics and process. He is at once thought­ful and de­lib­er­ate, yet seem­ingly ef­fort­less when dis­cussing is­sues that con­tinue to drive him. One no­tices these traits long be­fore pon­der­ing the cat­a­log of his­tory and anec­dotes of that his­tory his mind con­tains. Be­la­fonte had for­ma­tive re­la­tion­ships with nearly ev­ery­one who shaped the mid- to late 20th cen­tury, from Martin Luther King to Eleanor Roo­sevelt to African lead­ers across the di­as­pora who forged paths away from colo­nial­ism. His role in his­tory al­ready se­cure, Be­la­fonte is work­ing on the Many Rivers to Cross Fes­ti­val to be held in At­lanta Oc­to­ber 1-2 to con­tinue his so­cial jus­tice legacy through en­cour­ag­ing a new gen­er­a­tion to lead the charge. He does it with the el­e­gance that won him many ad­mir­ers.

Be­la­fonte cred­its his mother as a pri­mary in­flu­ence on his style sense, not­ing he needed to be fas­tid­i­ous in his ap­pear­ance to pass her crit­i­cal eye. “My mother saw so­cial eti­quette in terms of Bri­tish tu­tor­ing. She con­sid­ered her­self as a Caribbean very dif­fer­ent from black Amer­i­cans.” And though he grew up poor, she told him, “Poverty is no ex­cuse for the ab­sence of class.” As a pi­o­neer in en­ter­tain­ment, his

mother’s lessons would serve him well. “I was al­ways on the cut­ting edge of spa­ces where white Amer­ica didn’t al­ways make our pres­ence com­fort­able,” he re­calls, re­count­ing the racism he ex­pe­ri­enced as the first black en­ter­tainer to per­form at the Wal­dorf As­to­ria. “My mother was tena­cious in her pride and never wanted folks to take lib­er­ties with her. And she im­posed this on her chil­dren.” He forged his path with grit and style to earn ac­cep­tance. That half the crowds of the spa­ces he in­vaded were ador­ing fe­males didn’t hurt his as­cent ei­ther.

The fash­ion world be­gan to fre­quent the worlds he in­vaded, and he rev­eled in it. Asked what he en­joys about the fash­ion process, “All of it!” he an­i­mated. “I don’t just do it as an act of ac­com­mo­da­tion. I like to dress. I like look­ing through mag­a­zines and look­ing at color com­bi­na­tions and tie pat­terns, socks, shoes.” (He de­lighted in telling the story about the time his friend, Ken­neth Cole asked him to walk the run­way in Mr. Cole’s fash­ion week show with­out introduction or nar­ra­tive that left the au­di­ence abuzz, won­der­ing if the hand­some man was, in fact, Be­la­fonte.)


Po­lit­i­cal and so­cial events of­ten dic­tate one’s abil­ity to make a mark on his­tory. Be­la­fonte ben­e­fited from a con­flu­ence of forces that would pro­pel his arc: New York and Hol­ly­wood were (rel­a­tively) more hos­pitable to black en­ter­tain­ers, which al­lowed Be­la­fonte to ce­ment his celebrity and cross­over sta­tus. Around the same time, the strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence in Africa co­in­cided with the bur­geon­ing Civil Rights strug­gle in the U.S. Be­la­fonte’s Caribbean her­itage af­forded him an ex­cel­lent per­spec­tive to bridge the African di­as­pora and act as a pow­er­ful voice for change.

He quit high school and said he gained his ed­u­ca­tion through so­cial ob­ser­va­tions of peers and men­tors like W.E.B. Dubois (“a man of Har­vard!”), Paul Robe­son, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and of, course, King. “I didn’t set out to lead, I didn’t set out to teach any­body any­thing. This is who I am. I wasn’t try­ing to ef­fect any­thing. When Dr. King called and in­tro­duced him­self, I was a will­ing dis­ci­ple.” Their bond would send Be­la­fonte on his way to be­com­ing an in­ter­na­tional voice in civil rights, anti-apartheid, and humanitarianism.


The Many Rivers Fes­ti­val in At­lanta is an op­por­tu­nity for Be­la­fonte to cre­ate a plat­form he can leave as a legacy that bears his brand. The fes­ti­val’s roots be­gan with a con­ver­sa­tion he had with Prince, who asked, “Why can’t we have a fes­ti­val to cel­e­brate the beauty of the power of re­bel­lion?” Be­la­fonte re­sponded to the ques­tion and chal­lenged young artists to think about their ac­tivism. He asked those he ap­proached for the fes­ti­val, “What song in your reper­toire would fit the de­sign of so­cial strug­gle?” Many artists re­al­ized they had no such song, so he asked them to com­pose mu­sic that fit. His con­ver­sa­tions with them prompted many to eval­u­ate their abil­ity to ef­fect change through their art, to act, as Robe­son called artists, as the gate­keep­ers of truth. With any suc­cess, the fes­ti­val will flour­ish to honor his vi­sion.

Harry Be­la­fonte is a tran­scen­dent fig­ure who suc­cess­fully mar­ried his style and celebrity with pol­i­tics and ac­tivism to do a world of good. As he so­lid­i­fies his men­tor­ship of his fes­ti­val, he looks to in­spire a gen­er­a­tion of new voices at a crit­i­cal time in his­tory. No doubt, he will be there look­ing and speak­ing el­e­gantly, as al­ways.

Harry Be­la­fonte - be­hind the Many Rivers to Cross Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in At­lanta this week­end.

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