Belafonte's voice remains true

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Thu Jan 9 09:17:14 MST 2003

VERY NICE story in the Miami Herald about  Belafonte and why he fights so hard
against  injustice, including why he strongly supports
the Cuban Revolution as he has always done.  You'll also want to see the nice

Posted on Thu, Jan. 09, 2003
In song or controversy, Belafonte's voice remains true
emcdonnell at

More than 50 years ago -- long before his comments about
Colin Powell swung the spotlight back on his storied but
controversial career -- Harry Belafonte got his first big
break, at a Miami Beach nightclub.

The Five O'Clock, owned by comic actress Martha Raye, was
the first venue to take a risk on the New York singer and
actor. But the World War II veteran remembers the experience
more for the doors he saw closed than the ones he saw open.

''At the time, people of color had to have identification
cards and passes for staying out after curfew,'' Belafonte,
75, says, speaking over the phone from New York. ``The
racial lines were not quite what I had expected. I thought
Miami would have been purged of all that. It was one of the
things that early on made me understand the insidiousness of
racial laws.''

That lesson in segregation helped shape a life that is
perhaps as known for its outspoken activism as its artistic
and commercial breakthroughs. In an era of great song
stylists, from Sinatra to Presley to Nat King Cole,
Belafonte was one of the most original, mixing black
American and Caribbean traditional songs with the usual pop
standards. He was also one of Hollywood's first dark-skinned
cinema idols.

And he was the most outspoken of his song and film peers.
Belafonte helped President Kennedy establish the Peace Corps
and worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was an
early ally of Nelson Mandela. He spearheaded the We Are the
World famine relief recording in the '80s. Most recently, he
denounced U.S. intentions to invade Iraq.

''My life's journey has been long and interesting,''
Belafonte says.

He's currently working on an ''audio biography'' of that
journey, parts of which he will perform live for the first
time at two upcoming shows in South Florida: Friday at the
Broward Center for the Performing Arts and Jan. 18 at the
Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

''I've met interesting people along the way, found poetry
and verse that helps describe what this life of mine has
been about,'' Belafonte says. ``That ark of my life, from
being born in poverty in the Great Depression to working
with Crips and Bloods in American prisons, all of it finds
its way into verses of songs I sing.''


That ark begins in Harlem, where Belafonte's mother was a
domestic worker and illegal Jamaican immigrant; his father
eventually abandoned the family. His mother took him to
Jamaica when he was a teenager. The island upraising shaped
him deeply. For one, it gave his career its musical calling
card: In '57, his first and still greatest hit, Banana Boat
(Day-O), introduced mainstream American audiences to the
Trinidadian sound of calypso. The album, Calypso, was the
first by an artist of any color to sell more than a million

Belafonte was also busting barriers on screen, playing half
of an interracial couple in Island in the Sun, as well as
starring in Carmen Jones and The Bright Road.

The pass system drove Belafonte out of Miami early in 1950.
But he returned, as a star, in 1955, finding a more
integrated city. When Larry King interviewed Belafonte this
past fall, the journalist recalled the moment the crooner
became the first black to stay in a Miami Beach hotel.
Belafonte opened the Eden Roc and played the Fontainebleau,
back when the Rat Pack kept Miami vacationers entertained.

''The Eden Roc and what that community brought to me was
perhaps the most intense period of love that ever came out
of America,'' he says. ``Most of the audiences were Jewish,
and I think they saw that my success was their success. The
more issues of race crumbled, the more they delighted in

Still, there were obstacles. Belafonte was invited by the
Shriners to sing the national anthem at a football game.
Apparently, they didn't realize he was black. When they
found out, they tried to cancel his performance. Belafonte
prevailed; he recalls with delight standing on a float next
to an American flag, the Shriners compelled to salute as he
paraded by.

Belafonte says it was the last time he sang the anthem at a
public affair. ''I just felt until the issues of race in
this country were completely settled and black citizens had
true equality, there was something very hypocritical about
standing there singing that song,'' he says.

It was during those pre-Castro days that he also first
performed in Cuba and fell in love with that country's
music. It's a relationship that did not end once Fidel took
power; Belafonte's most recent of many visits to the island
was in December for the film and jazz festivals.

``I made a lot of friends in Cuba in those days [the '50s].
When the revolution came, I maintained my relationships with
those friends and I went to see them under the banner of
their new regime. And I found things that fascinated me
about the experiment that was going on there, and a lot of
things that I didn't like. I continue to do that, because my
friends are still there, we still have great regard and
affection for one another. We continue to still greet each
other civilly; we are the ones to try to keep the doors of
civility open between the two nations. . . .

``I think the greatest way to win ideas and to open up
hearts and minds is to let people have free exchange and
access to one another.''

Refusing to sing the national anthem, ignoring the United
States' boycott of Cuba -- those are the kinds of unpopular
stances Belafonte was taking when Sinead O'Connor and Bono
were yet twinkles in someone's eyes. He remains as committed
as ever to activism, as his October talk-radio comments
about Powell, house slaves and plantation slaves made clear.

''I said it, I still say it, I will continue to say it,''
Belafonte says, standing by his remarks that, ``there are
those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were
those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege
of living in the house if you served the master. Colin
Powell was permitted to come into the house of the master.''

That comment, made during a radio interview, drew criticism,
even from Belafonte supporters. Herald columnist Leonard
Pitts Jr. wrote: 'My disagreement with Belafonte has nothing
to do with his critique of White House policy and everything
to do with playing blacker-than-thou with Colin Powell.
Black folk do that entirely too much, throw around 'House
Negro' and its synonym, 'Uncle Tom,' with reckless,
unthinking and injurious abandon.''


Belafonte is used to coming under fire for his views.

''That's been the last 50 years of my life,'' he says.
``Each time I have been denounced and cursed, some of it
very visceral -- almost everything I've been involved in
that was considered unpatriotic and not in the best
interests of civilization and this that and the other -- I
have been rewarded and vindicated by the way these things
turned out. Dr King was a terrorist in the beginning, now
he's a holiday. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and a
communist, and he turned out to be one of the great moral
voices of the 20th century. The truth of history has fallen
very much on my side.

``I don't follow the polls. As Dr. King would say, truth can
not be altered by consensus.''

Evelyn McDonnell is the Herald's pop music critic. Click
here to read more of her columns.

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