Harry Belafonte is a legendary entertainer, known for his iconic performances in films like Carmen Jones, Buck and the Preacher, and Calypso. And who can forget his award-winning “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”? However, in a long and distinguished career, Belafonte’s greatest accomplishments arguably may be his involvement with the civil rights movement.
During the ’50s and ’60s, Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest supporters and endorsers. He fully believed in the message and movement that King worked so tirelessly to establish. Belafonte provided financial support for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC), and he also participated in several rallies and protests alongside King. Still a civic-minded crusader today at age 85, he continues to live his life as an outspoken activist for social justice and equality.
Belafonte has never been one to shy away from social commentary or hold his tongue in conversation. He has been known for his honest comments and straightforward critiques about politics, show business, and society.
In an interview last week with the Hollywood Reporter, when asked whether or not he was happy with the images of minorities portrayed in Hollywood, he caused a stir by calling out two famous black celebrities by name. “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities,” Belafonte began. “But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example.”
Belafonte believes that industry heavyweights like Jay-Z and Beyoncé have a social responsibility to be outspoken regarding issues of race, prejudice, and civil injustices, mainly because they have the social influence and public platform to do so. Janelle Harris at Essence echoed those sentiments. “There’s been an ugly dumbing down when it comes to acknowledging and addressing pertinent issues, even having empathy for and interest in what’s impacting our community. It’s an attitude of detachment,” she said.
She added: “I agree with Harry Belafonte. I think young people could be doing more. Twenty, thirty, forty-somethings. It’s not just the celebrities, though they’re certainly part of the vanguard for making philanthropy and activism cool, which is unfortunately necessary for some folks to get involved.”
Jay-Z and Beyoncé are definitely the closest thing the black community has to pop-culture royalty today. The hip-hop power couple topped Forbes list this year as the world’s highest-paid celebrity duo, raking in a staggering $78 million. But are they giving back?
Guardian columnist Tricia Rose wonders as much. She writes, “It is undeniable that today’s top black artists and celebrities have the greatest leverage, power, visibility and global influence of any period. It is also true that few speak openly, regularly and publicly on behalf of social justice. Most remain remarkably quiet about the conditions that the majority of black people face.”
Many celebrities often take on a non-controversial role or use their celebrity indirectly as a fundraising tool, rather than taking an overt stance to engage civically. Rose continues to say that her previous statement is not intended to, “discount their philanthropic efforts,” but to raise awareness. And Belafonte’s lament illuminates a fundamental shift in black popular culture.
“As black artists have gone mainstream, their traditional role has shifted. No longer the presumed cultural voice of the black collective social justice, it is now heavily embedded in mass cultural products controlled by the biggest conglomerates in the world,” says Rose.
Rose notes that individuals like Belafonte willfully sacrificed their safety and lives by marching with civil rights protesters under threat of police violence. His commitment and contributions are rare among modern superstars.
She adds: “In the history of black culture popular music and art has played an extraordinary role in keeping the spirit alive under duress, challenging discrimination and writing the soundtrack to freedom movements.” Visionaries like Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone are a few that Rose believes understood that responsibility and made a conscious effort to better society through both their art and fame.
As for Beyoncé, the singer’s representatives did respond to Belafonte’s charge by citing a litany of the singer’s charitable acts, including funding of inner-city outreaches in her hometown of Houston, as well as donations to hurricane relief efforts in the Gulf Coast and humanitarian campaigns following the Haiti earthquake.
In fairness to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it is not for any of us to judge how they use their money, nor to pressure them into being more generous than they already are. What’s more, the issues in today’s society are quite different than they were during the civil rights era. So, it might be unfair to impose those kinds of expectations on today’s African American celebrities.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that we do need more influential people with Belafonte’s mindset to help us reenergize the black community. His contributions over the course of his career have changed the world for the better and have proven that entertainers can be important difference makers for change and justice.