San Francisco Chronicle

Belafonte’s commitment stays strong

- By Steven Winn

Harry Belafonte may have given up performing, but he’s not about to go quietly. On everything from “Porgy and Bess” and Black Lives Matter to being blackliste­d in the 1950s, the 89-year-old singer, actor and lifelong political activist comes to the subject at hand with candor, statesman-like eloquence and sudden jolts of giddy laughter.

Audiences can hear for themselves this weekend, when Belafonte makes a rare public appearance at the Kate Wolf Music Festival in Laytonvill­e (Mendocino County). He’ll be in conversati­on Saturday, June 25, with blues musician Eric Bibb, who

performs at the four-day festival the previous evening.

Recently speaking by phone from his home in New York City, Belafonte ranged over a life that began in Harlem poverty, as the son of a Jamaican housekeepe­r and a ship’s cook from Martinique, and ascended various show business arcs. Perhaps most famously known as the king of calypso, with songs like “Matilda” and the “day-o”-spangled “Banana Boat Song” as his signatures, Belafonte won a Tony Award (for “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac”) and an honorary Oscar, in 2014, among many other accolades.

His pioneering show business achievemen­ts include such films as the all-black-cast “Carmen Jones,” the first million-seller album by a solo artist (“Calypso”) and the first Emmy awarded to an African American (the 1960 “Revlon Revue”).

From the start, however, race and social justice have been the clarifying lenses of his experience. Offered the plum title role in the 1959 film version of “Porgy and Bess,” Belafonte turned it down.

“DuBose Heyward, who wrote the book, was very much a racist, with family ties to the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “Porgy is on his knees and has no backbone. Sportin’ Life is a pimp and a hustler.” While crediting the Gershwins for making it into something musically “remarkable,” Belafonte wanted no part of a piece whose black characters lacked “so much as one redeeming quality.”

Branded a “Communist fronter,” Belafonte was blackliste­d in the McCarthy period. Instead of bowing to establishm­ent values, he took them on. Belafonte told, with relish, the story of meeting Ed Sullivan at the Delmonico Hotel to be vetted as a possible guest on the host’s TV show. Sullivan read him a list of allegation­s.

“I said it was all true,” Belafonte recalled, “and how much more he’d missed.” Reminding Sullivan that his own Irish ancestors were victims of prejudice, Belafonte took his leave. Several hours later, he got the call from Sullivan inviting him on the show.

Principles always came first. Because he’d never competed in the Trinidad festival that crowned an official King of Calypso, Belafonte said he “resisted” the moniker that came with his performanc­e and recording success. His long friendship with Marlon Brando, whom he met in an acting class, had much to do with the stands of solidarity Brando took with American Indians and the Black Panthers.

Belafonte praised Joan Fontaine for “challengin­g the system of race and paying a terrible price in her career” when she agreed to play his love interest in the 1957 film “Island in the Sun.”

Former secretarie­s of state Colin Powell and Condoleezz­a Rice, black members of the George W. Bush administra­tion, felt Belafonte’s wrath when he labeled them “house slaves” for their roles in the Iraq War. It was the kind of thing that earned him, over the years, the charge of arrogance. Belafonte still makes no apologies.

“If a black person is corrupt morally and socially, they should be taken to task,” he said. “I make no exceptions.”

When Belafonte was 9 years old, his mother sent him to live with his white grandmothe­r in Jamaica. It was a formative break from a hardscrabb­le existence in New York. “For the rest of my life,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir “My Song,” “I would feel an unusual sense of ease in moving between races and classes — an ease that would help me as an entertaine­r, later as an activist.”

Back in New York, Belafonte dropped out of school (“I had a severe touch of dyslexia”), enlisted in the Navy and began hanging around nightclubs trying to catch on as a singer. Asked how he avoided the numbers racket and “rumrunning” that several uncles drifted into, Belafonte put it simply: “My mother’s declaratio­n that she’d rather see me dead than as a gangster was very persuasive,” he said, unfurling a long peal of laughter.

As to the current American political and social climate, topics he will discuss during his appearance at the weekend festival, Belafonte finds little to smile about.

“I think the nation sits at probably the most important crossroads in its history,” he said. “Here we are with this incredible wealth and power that dominates so much, and yet we bring so little to the table of our common humanity.”

Belafonte endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, but said he would vote for Hillary Clinton — “since it has been reduced to that choice.”

A question about Black Lives Matter induced a reflection on “all the movements I’ve seen,” from the labor movement and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reforms to the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, a close friend who “felt so burdened by the responsibi­lities he had taken on.”

Belafonte returned to the present on a mordant note. “For us to be at a place today where we are still in need of a Black Lives Matter is a sad statement.”

 ?? Blair Pittman / Houston Chronicle 1967 ?? Harry Belafonte, here in a 1967 Houston show, is a lifelong political activist.
Blair Pittman / Houston Chronicle 1967 Harry Belafonte, here in a 1967 Houston show, is a lifelong political activist.
 ?? Courtesy Pamela Belafonte ?? Harry Belafonte will be at the Kate Wolf Music Festival.
Courtesy Pamela Belafonte Harry Belafonte will be at the Kate Wolf Music Festival.

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