An Afternoon With Harry Belafonte

[Part of this interview was published with The Huffington Post, 17 October, 2012]

I caught up Harry Belafonte at a press conference at the Locarno Film Festival.  Mr. Belafonte spoke eloquently about the very important role that art plays in politics, his roots in social activism, music and theatre,  our common humanity, and about the dangers we face today.

Q:  Could you start by taking about your background in theatre as you have mentioned earlier the social role of the artist?

HB: I would like to make the observation that a lot of people like to put me into a context that is easy for them to understand. One thing people should understand is that I am not an artist who became an activist, I am an activist who became an artist.  It was my good fortune that when I was quite young, before I was twenty, to discover the world of theatre quite by accident. I came back from the  Second World War where I had served in the United States armed forces and after that war I had absolutely no idea where I was to go and what I was to do with my life.  I worked in a very menial, unskilled job: I was a janitor’s assistant.  I did repairs in the building, I cleaned the hallways, I cleaned the windows, I repaired faucets.  And in such an adventure, I was once given two tickets as a tip, as a gratuity, to go to the theatre. I had never been to the theatre and I was very curious to see what it was.  I went into the theatre, a small place in Harlem, in New York, the place where I was born, and  a whole new world opened up to me.  I saw the artists came on stage and I saw the magic of words, the magic of lighting, the magic of drama, the power of the playwright.  I just knew it was an environment where I wanted to be. I wanted to belong to the people who were doing this work, who were trying to say something to the world.  I saw it as a platform where I could speak about my own desires and hopes. So I stayed in that place first as a member of the audience and then eventually I hung around everyday and I would come back every day. I would do anything to be part of this culture and it was in this place where I found I would be for the rest of my life. I had no idea what would become of it,  I had no idea what it would turn out to be–it was just an adventure.  There was much to learn and much to understand that would help enrich me, my knowledge, my spirit in this magical thing called theatre.

I was very lucky. Most important part of this early part of the journey was to meet a German name Erwin Piscator. He had come from Germany and had fled the Nazis and he came to the United States. All the universities wanted to get him as he came to America with great fame.  He had come from the world of Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt.  The kind of theatre which he did was incredibly powerful and realistic drama. Through his teachings I saw the deeper meaning of what it meant to be in the dramatic arts.  It was very fortunate for me that my classmates–people like Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis, I can go on and on–this remarkable young group of actors who had no idea what would become of our lives.  Because of the teachers we had we were embarking on a journey.  One of the most important was Marlon Brando. He was to the world of acting what Picasso was to the world of painting–he was very dramatic and very inventive and he inspired the rest of us. I grew up with this–he and I were very close friends.

The reason why I am here today is not only to give tribute to Otto Preminger but also to show this film, Sing Your Song.  I started to make this film when Marlon Brando passed away.  I was very sad when we lost him, but I was even sadder by the fact that they said very little about who he really was.  They talked about his fame, his philandering, his adventures as a human being, but they never talked about his soul, his heart, they never talked about his social vision. And it was in that context that I admired him and was inspired by him as he was very committed to the human family.  He was very committed to doing films about the lives of people that he thought we should know about. It was no accident he did the films he did–he made those selections out of great consciousness. He had a belief that there was a purpose to being an artists.  There was a great mentor to us, Paul Robeson, who once told us, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth and when our voices are silenced civilisation will have come to an end.  We are perhaps one of the most important instruments in the experience of global humanity.” In this rather august thought, with this belief that the gift of art had a purpose, not just for fame or economic reward, but the purpose to instruct, to inspire people to know things about other people. This is a wonderful, wonderful place in which to reside.  Everything I ever did in my life was always measured in this consciousness:  what do you want to say, why do you want to say it, and why do you think it is important for people to know?  Even the most casual opponents in theatre or film it seems to be a flirtatious moment but there was always a purpose for it.  And with this anointing, this sense of purpose I set out to do what I did and the gods smiled on me:  people liked the songs that I sang, I tried to do pictures that made statements about experiences that I had as a human being in America and I also found the opportunity through that fame to become very instructive. I found that the audiences were very generous and liked when I sang. The first question I asked was what do I do with this generosity, with this much power, what do I do with this much extension, this desire to know–that my task is to fill that space with information that I thought would inspire people which would make them smile at the world in which they lived.  Frantz Fanon, a social philosopher once wrote about the people whom he called “the wretched of the earth.”   To live among the wretched of the earth, to live among the poor to among those who have had to struggle for human truth and human dignity is the place I most enjoy being.  I have spent my life in the midst of that social strata because to be inspired by them is to be inspired by a greater use for my life and the opportunities which I was given.  This is who I am and that is how I came to be.

Q: I would like to ask since the Preminger Retrospective is the centrepiece of this festival and since Carmen Jones was your first major film, did you sense in Otto Preminger this kind of purpose you have just been talking about?

HB:  Yes, I did sense that in Otto Preminger, that he had a purpose in life more than just the pursuit of fame. He had a deep social sensitivity as he came from this part of the world, Austria, and he had an experience with Hitler and the Third Reich and what happened with Naziism. He came to America in the quest for freedom and opportunity and he found in America the opportunity to become an artist.  And he used his platform to tell stories that he felt touched a deeper humanity.  When he stepped out to do Carmen Jones, he didn’t just think it was an idea for a wonderful film, it had a historical and social purpose.  In most of cinema history, people of colour–particularly people of African descent–had always been pictured as sub-human. We were never considered to be individuals with dignity, with a history, with a culture, with a story to tell. We were always looked upon as a burden to humanity, were people who always had to be helped, who had to be benevolently treated, that we should be instructed kindly by those who had power. But those who gave us that kind of definition failed to realise that long before they came to be who they were, people of African descent and people of colour had experienced thousands of years of civilisations and the development of civil society and did remarkable things long before Europeans came into their moment of glory and their moment of power. Most of how we were judged was measured by slavery. They found these people who had no humanity, these people who were just a little bit better than the beasts in the jungle: white benevolence, you came to rescue us, to help us find our souls and our dimensions as fellow beings. Of course, that attitude, that view, of Africans led us to be always be viewed as such.

But Otto Preminger came to know us and understand us and he decided to take another approach.  When he did Carmen Jones, he saw in that film an opportunity to treat us as anyone else in the world would have been treated who were telling a story of interest, of tragedy, of drama, of humour, a story of humanity.  And instead of seeing us as we were always seen–as servants, as buffoons, as mindless people running around the jungle waiting for Tarzan, the great white hope to come and save us–we were given the opportunity to show our own strength, our own dignity, our own spirit as a people.  In Hollywood at the time, it was considered a very dangerous thing. First of all, there was a large part of our society that never wanted us to be envisioned as a people of a certain purpose and history who, from their point of view even today, are trying to force us to a subhuman place.  But there were others who said to try to do this, to change the norm,  would be a reckless expenditure of resources. Anybody who would want to make an all black film was doomed to failure because there was no audience for that, nobody would believe that, nobody would understand that.  And Otto Preminger said, “I disagree” and he stepped up and used his own resources and with the alliance of Darryl Zanuck and the distribution of Twentieth Century Fox and these men reached out to some young people who were quite famous in their communities to step to the table to become part of this adventure.

This wasn’t a picture that was very political–it wasn’t a picture that tried to show us emerging from oppression.  It was a picture that tried to tell a story that was far more fundamental to our common humanity: it was a love story, a tragic love story. And what you saw on the screen for the first time in Hollywood was a beautiful black woman. Most of the time what you saw on the screen were black women who were fat, who were servants, who were stupid, black women who were always servile and bowing; you saw black men who were always butlers, always taking care of the horses and doing all the cleaning, and buggy-eyed and hence they were a source of humour for the white master.  Otto Preminger saw a very different kind of humanity.  So getting Dorothy Dandridge and putting her on the screen and she was incredibly beautiful in a cunning and smart way.  He put other artists–Pearl Bailey, Dihann Carroll, a great dancer by the name of Alvin Ailey–and he went and go Harry Belafonte who at that time was just starting to peak in his popularity.  They know who I was and Twentieth Century Fox thought I was a good way to insure their investment because I already had an audience.  And when they put us together in this film, Otto Preminger did the impossible–we filmed in ten days. Everything you see on the screen we were required to do it in ten days for the budget.  We worked very hard and it was extremely complicated–a cinemascope picture, we had to lip sync to the music.  One of the problems that Dorothy Dandridge and I had was that the voices you hear in the picture were not ours.  Someone else did the singing because the estate of Bizet from which Gershwin made an adaptation, one thing the estate insisted on were that the origins of the musical as had been written by Bizet could not be altered. And both Dorothy Dandridge and I were not classically trained–we didn’t have operatic voices so we couldn’t sing that great range, those notes.  We could have sung it by using other styles and interpretations but they did not allow us to have that artistic license.  We had to stick strictly to the score as it had originally been written. So both Dorothy and I who were singers said that for the benefit of the project that we thought it was important for us to go along with the idea.  So we had Marilyn Horne who was a great classical singer–and still is today–at the Met.  She loved the opera, she was a great Carmen and she loved singing Carmen Jones.  She did Dorothy Dandridge’s voice.  And a man by the name of LeVern Hutcherson did my voice.  So we had to learn how to lip sync and it was quite strange to be on set singing and making love to each other with someone else’s voice [laughter] and we had to look like we believed it. But we did the film.

And when it came out, to everybody’s delight and reward, the world fell in love with us, fell in love with the film.  Otto Preminger was vindicated and he went on to do other films dealing with subject matters of black life, of black humanity, as well as other films. That to me was the earliest indication that the theatre allowed you to say things, to change the way people perceived their own society and neighbours and to see the correct way to live.  I have been rewarded by that fact ever since.

Q: In your book, you discuss among many things, going to the Havana Film Festival and you talk about going to meet Castro and how impressed you were with him.  Can you talk about the role of film festivals and what makes them valuable?

I think, like others, I enjoy the anointing, the opportunity to be praised given the generosity of the audiences.  But there is an agenda for me–that is to take advantage of the moment since the audience is willing to hear my voice and to make sure that when they hear that voice I am giving them something that they can think about, something that might inspire them, something that might help them understand things they don’t understand. I was born into poverty and the fact of that experience made me understand why the people in my family–namely my mother–were treated so cruelly because of their station in life.  It was extremely difficult. And because of race, it was extremely difficult to get equal opportunity and I thought very early that if I never did anything else, I would use my life to change that reality, that I should fight against poverty and racial oppression and that I should fight against all oppression.  And therefore anointed with this mission everywhere I went and everything I did seemed to be touched by the fact that this was what I wanted to do.

The earliest time of my life was influenced by three people.  One was the great woman by the name of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the president of the United States of America, who was a woman of enormous qualifications: she had a great intellect, a great humanity, and she had inordinate power as the wife of the president to do things to change the plight of people. She felt nobody deserved to be oppressed so she fought for our equality. When she saw in my young life how I used my life as an artist, she asked me to come and work with her and be part of her mission. And with that opportunity I engaged in her mission for healthcare, for a productive way of life.  A man by the name of Paul Robeson, a man of great force within the African American community who was absolutely stunning–not only did he have a great intellect but he had a great capacity for language.  He spoke, wrote and could read twenty-two language among which were Swahili, Zulu, Fula and Susu and many tongues of Chinese dialects.  People always loved him for coming to their countries and singing their songs. When I met Dr. King, who was the third person, he was two years younger than I was–he was 24 when he led the movement in America and I was 26.  That was very young to take on such a large responsibility. But I admired him too: he had a PhD, he studied theology and he was a great religious philosopher.  But he was a liberation theologist and he saw religion in the service of humanity, not as a force to command people but to inspire people.  He use religion to teach us about the goodness in one another.  From the very earliest moment when I joined him in the cause to liberate us in America, people of colour, he said, “The thing we must remember is that we need to talk with our adversaries. Our friends do not need to hear our voice–we need to talk to those who don’t understand us, to those who would crucify us, to those who do not see us as worthy of our space.  I found that whenever we went anywhere in the United States of America where it was against the law to sit some place, to sleep some place, to eat some place.  It was the United States of America that created the rules of apartheid. South Africa didn’t invent that–as a matter of fact those who created apartheid in South Africa learned from the United States.  We invented the rules of the separation of colour and the separation of class.  So we always spoke to those we felt we needed to convince to change their belief that we should be oppressed.

I saw how effective this concept was when I first met the Kennedys, when I met John and Bob Kennedy.  They were not friends of ours to begin with. They were gracious, they tolerated us, but they didn’t see us with passion.  They saw us as something they must do as an incident to their lives, not as a cause in their life.  We saw them as a cause in our lives and we had to reach out very deeply to them to convince them that they had to service the greater humanity which was to see the world in terms of equality. Wherever I went I found there was a social distinction that separated people, that separated ideas.  In dividing and conquering us, I don’t really come to know you and you don’t really come to know me, you’ll never understand that I am really you and you are really me. Once we truly come to understand and appreciate that is when we can look towards developing a civilisation that is much more harmonious and much more rewarding.

Sometimes you can be punished for that idea. So I went to places in the world where one side would not talk to the other and I said, “That is precisely where I need to be.”   Wherever I went both sides called me a traitor:  the ones on the left saw me as a traitor, the ones of the right saw me as a traitor. And because of that fact I knew I was doing my job.

When I went to Germany for the first time, I did not want to go. I had come fresh from the experiences of the Second World War.  I understood much about the cruelty of “Deutschland über Alles,” the superior race, the blonde, blue-eyed Aryan, the alienation between cultures and theology, the hate of the Jew–all these things that made up that system and that crushed our common humanity. I felt somewhat reluctant to go to that place to sing, to bring the instruments of joy to a society that had been so cruel to the rest of the world.  But that did not sit comfortably with me. It was precisely the place of my own base belief: that you must reach out to those who don’t understand you, to that community and make a difference. And because of certain friends that I had, a man by the name of George Merrick who was an Austrian Jew who became the head of RCA, the most powerful record company in the world–he ran that company. And he saw in me and others of colour, a chance to make a statement. He gave us the opportunity to record, to bring our voices to the audience. He said, “Let them hear your art and it will change the way they think of you.” He did that for Leontyne Price, he did that for me, he did it for Duke Ellington… He signed all these black people while he signed all these great white artists on the label. He was also a social philosopher–he is the one who said, “You will go to Germany, you will go to Austria…you will understand who those people are and they will understand who you are. That is the real purpose of your mission.”  So I went to Berlin, it was 1957 and I was one of the popular artists from America to go to Germany.  When I arrived, there was a law only a small group of people, no more than five, could congregate in one place.  This was martial law so when I got to Germany there were not great crowds at the airport. So when I came, everything was segregated and separated. I came with this sense of darkness.

When I got to the hotel I heard a noise outside and the musicians came to my suite to ask if I had heard the noise outside. It sounded like this: “ah ha–ah ha–ah ha!”  One of the men in the group said, “I think they are saying “Sieg heil, sieg hiel!”  I told him, “I don’t think that’s possible.” So we went to the shutters in the hotel room and we looked out, and against the law,  there were in the street below the hotel hundreds and hundreds of Germans who were in the streets screaming, “Har-ry, Har-ry, Har-ry!”   And I got extremely emotional.  Much to my amazement were these young people I didn’t even know who knew me and they were giving me this chant and they were expressing their humanity. And in that very moment I saw what I consider to be the future of Germany–of young people reaching out for another time and space, to do something very different from the history they had come from, the history they knew. Even in Germany as in the United States, the children still do not know enough about the history they had come from, the history they knew.  They were looking for another place. And therein sat the great opportunity to the artist, to bring their songs, to bring their films, their stories and art; to transcend cruel laws and violate everything–to make everyone listen. From that moment on I knew I would go forever to Germany as long as there would be an audience.  But the most touching moment came at my concert. I sang a repertoire that was filled with songs that were quite popular by the time I came to Germany. One song in particular I always sang which I didn’t sing because I was in Germany, I sang it because I always sang it:  the “Hava Nagilah.” [Belafonte begins to sing this song]  By the time I got halfway into the song, they were singing. [Belafonte continues singing.]  In the end it was like being in a beer hall. What fascinated me is that here I was with all these young Germans in1957, singing the song of the Jews who, just a few short years earlier, had been the victims of one of the cruel mass murder attempts known to civilisation. And now instead of crucifying, we were singing, “let us have peace, let us have love.”  And all these Germans were singing this.

And here I was, coming from America as a black American, having experienced severe racism, having even then, under the law–there was a written law–that said I couldn’t sleep certain places, I couldn’t vote.  All the things we talked about human rights and I didn’t have them.  And here I was a black American singing to Germans the song of the Jew in the land of the Jew. We were all family in one moment and that was an epiphany for me.  I said I have now seen the clarity of the power of art and what my mission was to do.  And now to get to the point of your question.  [Laughter erupts]

I took a long time to explain this because as my relationship with German and Austria grew during the Cold War there was a great strain between the East and West: we had the Persian Missile Crisis, there was East Germany and West Germany and there was this division in ideology. There was the buildup of nuclear arms everywhere and the death of civilisation was very close: nobody was talking to anyone except in great belligerence.  They always said, “You can cage the singer, but not the song.” So I decided when the people of East Germany called and asked me to come to sing there, I understood the social difficulty of accepting with the press stating I was a Communist sympathiser and that I was betraying the Democratic principles of the West.  I said, “You can call me what you want but I know what I am and I know what I must do.  If I can sing for the Germans in the West then I can sing for the Germans in the East. I do not accept this division because it is an unjust law that says we must not talk to one another. But I was doing the exact the same same thing in the United States of America, I just didn’t talk with people who loved me–I talked with people who disliked me intensely. I sat at the table with members of the Ku Klux Klan and with Dr. King talking with people who religiously condemned us as an inferior people, as the instrument of the devil. And through Dr. King and others we always spoke with the enemy because it was the enemy you had to convince: you can’t convince the enemy unless you talk with the enemy.  You can kill the enemy but we had centuries of illustrations of that kind of behaviour and it never succeeded in making our civilisations whole. So when I got the opportunity to go to East Germanybecause of this cruel law in America, I said, “No, you cannot do that.  I don’t accept this…If you want to send us to jail, there are those of us willing to pay this price.  But I will not have my voice snuffed out because you think it is inappropriate that I talk with someone who needs to hear what I have to say and I need to hearwhat they have to say.”

Cuba, which is a big thorn in America’s side, gave me an opportunity to go to that film festival and to meet several kinds of people.  There are many artists–great artists–who are not permitted to come to the United States because they were members of the Community Part or members of the Communist Socialist belief and the laws of the United States would say, “You cannot come to America.”  And some of them were the most powerful artists of the day, great writers like Gabriel García Marquez, not permitted in my country–he won the Nobel Prize.  So the only place I could meet him was in a place where we could celebrate art.  So Havana said,  “Come to the film festival and you can meet each other here.” So I went.  I met Jorge Armado and there were so many other like artists.  In that environment I found movies I never saw being shown in Havana, arts from all over Latin America, things I had never seen.

Q: How did you come to know Miriam Makeba?

HB: The year I came to Germany, I had gone to England first. While there people were enjoying the after hours party and I came back from my hotel. There was a priest who came from South Africa and he had been waiting for me all night.  He came with three young Africans–three black Africans–and he said, “I am sorry to disturb you, Mr. Belafonte, but I have come here in a crisis.  And I am here with three young Africans who are political refugees from South Africa who will be deported to South Africa.  And if they are sent back they will be sent to prison for life all because they dared to come to Europe to speak out about the Apartheid system in Africa.”  They did a film called Come Back Africa done by a young filmmaker by the name of Lionnel Robeson. It was a remarkable documentary which for the first time gave us a look into what the Apartheid government was doing.  In this film there was a young woman, as part of the story, who was singing a song and I loved the way she sang–he voice and what she was singing. And when they showed us the film in this private viewing room, they brought in these young Africans and she was one of them. And the South African government said these people when they go back to South Africa would be put into prison for having spoken out against the South African government. So these men asked if I could help get them visas to stay in London and perhaps help them get to America. And that is what I did as a political service. I also know if Miriam Makeba was able to come to America that I could help give her the platform so she could speak out on behalf of the African people. When she came to the United States she was concerned that Americans would not understand her: she spoke in a different language, she sang in a different language. And so I told her that music is universal they won’t understand the language that you speak, they will understand the language that you sing and there will be many of us to help you interpret what you do.  “You speak fluent English and the Americans will understand.   So we gave her the platform because she was quite popular and she was able to speak out about Africa in terms people understood.  She went on, of course, to become one of the great voices of music–she has influenced so many artists in America alone:  Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, many other Africans we brought to America, the students who became artists.  You see, I have always believed that one of thing that I must do is share the space of power:  find the artists that deserve to be heard and give them your platform, let them stand where you speak, let them stand and speak to the audience that has came to hear you.  The audience will love it and think it rewarding… And that is what happened.
Q: Actors like you, Dorothy Dandridge and Sydney Poitier were able to pave the way for black actors today. Still there is debate about the place of black actors in Hollywood.  What are your thoughts regarding the opportunity for young black entertainers today?

HB:  One thing Paul Robeson taught me never to compromise that responsibility that the artist has to expose the truth.  That was the earliest mandate we had in that day.  As has happened to the rest of culture, money has preempted life, money has preempted values, the things in our lives which are important.  Artists have yielded to the dictates of money.  The very pieces of silver we have taken to give up our right to be the purveyors of truth.  What most troubles me is that we have more black artists than ever before–not just in the world of cinema–in theatre and certainly in music, more black artists are famous and known all over the world.  And what is deeply disturbing is that most of those artists have never used that platform to inspire or instruct to take the focus of their constituency  towards understanding the deeper humanity and to understand the world in a greater context. But that is not just “black America,” that is the global.

What I think is happening is that money, the pursuit of money, has touched something very deep in the human DNA. We are creatures of greed, we have become extremely selfish as a culture.  Our humanity has been blurred by our need to become hedonistically filled with constant pleasure:  more, more materials, more goods, more space, more power. So that power becomes an end in itself and it destroys everything else in its path.  And there I think we see that instead of seeing black artists singing songs and making pictures about the  tragedies of what goes on in the world today–the stories of the Sudan, the rape of women in the Congo, and the stories of the millions of people who live in squalor in Latin America.  Now people make films to satisfy the bank who says: “Here is what we will pay for.  We own the studios, we own television, we own the press and they will do our dictates.”  And most of us capitulate and we say “fine.”  They give us our thirty pieces of silver.

Consequently we are on a journey in our time and global space where unbridled capital from the bank will lead no longer to a great overthrow.  So I think because since the Soviet Union imploded since Communism could not work, we are now in a time where we see how power corrupts absolutely–we see how it corrupts Wall Street, it corrupts Switzerland, it corrupts culture, it corrupts religion, it corrupts civilisation. It corrupts. It does not enhance.  What we need to replace when these things self-destruct is art, what the artist creates.  We are the inscribers of history.  You would know nothing about the world in which you live without these songs, these books, those stories.  Who told those stories?  Artists told them.

I once sat with the Archbishop of Edinburgh, a liberation theologist, and we got into a discussion of religion and mythology of the written word, the scriptures.  He said, “I settled that issue years ago, Harry.  I will tell you this:  when you read the Bible forget the science and enjoy the poetry.”  I really believe that we have yet to come to a deeper understanding of what we must do. I really believe that we have yet, as a species, to come to a deeper understanding of what it is that we must do.  So that in this time in which we live, I think that if we do not change our choices, we are likely to feed the weapons of our own destruction.