Harry Belafonte: Artists Are Gatekeepers of Truth

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Belafonte at the awards gala. Credit: Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Shared Interest

I have been in the same room with Harry Belafonte on at least half a dozen occasions and it's always a great honor.

Belafonte, now 86, is a special human being who has dedicated his life to the struggle for justice here in the United States and abroad -- in Latin America and in Africa.

Belafonte is most known here in the U.S. for his role in the Civil Rights Movement and his support for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many people don't know of his tremendous financial support for Dr. King and his family including after the Civil Rights leader was slain. 

Belafonte remains committed to the struggle. He's endured disrespect and vicious media attacks. Who does not recall how he was disinvited to the funeral services for Coretta Scott King in 2006, because President George W. Bush was also attending and some members of the King family were wary of Belafonte's presence?

This was on the third anniversary of the the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the war was escalating and Belafonte had been very critical of the Bush administration. For that principled stand he took a major beating in corporate media. 

Today, on the 10th anniversary of the war overwhelming evidence now confirms the earlier suspicion that Bush and the right wing hawkish elements around him, including Vice President Dick Cheney, had taken the nation into an unnecessary war on false evidence and information. The Bush legacy is in tatters and during the last presidential election Republican candidate Mitt Romney and his party tried to stay thousands of miles away from Bush. 

It turns out that Belafonte knew what he was talking about. He's owed an apology by those in corporate media who had been intimidated by the Bush administration into branding anyone who questioned the administration's war policy as somehow unpatriotic.

So for me personally it was a great pleasure to attend the non-profit organization, Shared Interest's gala on March 18, in Manhattan, where Belafonte was one of the recipients of an award recognizing his support for the liberation of South Africa through the years and for his contribution to African liberation in general. Belafonte's involvement with the continent started before most African countries were even independent.

And even though he spoke only for a few minutes, he was lively, informative, and entertaining as usual.

He said when people thank him for the "sacrifices" he's made through the years by his commitment to the struggle he doesn't recognize whom they are referring to: he said he would not trade the experience he's had and the great people he's met along the way and the diverse cultures he's sampled and interacted with, for anything.

He also spoke of his admiration for, and about what he learned from both Dr. King, and his great mentor Paul Robeson, who taught him that artists are “gatekeeper of truth.”

He cautioned South Africans that while they should be determined in their mission to create a more just society, that they should also be patient. He pointed out that even here in the United States, with its much longer history as a nation, the country was still striving to perfect a more better union. 

And an evening with Belafonte wouldn't be complete with some laughs. He recalled that after he stopped professional music performance in 2003, while visiting a Caribbean country, he once went through the collections of a music store. He came across Stevie Wonder's music and others'. He informed the store owner that he noted she didn't carry any music by a certain Harry Belafonte. Her initial response was: Harry "'who?" When he elaborated a little, she suddenly remembered that some visitors had also inquired about a Harry Belafonte's music in the past. With her Island accent, she then broke the news to him that, Belafonte, "Him dead."

In accepting the Shared Interest "Lifetime of Social Justice and Leadership Award" Belafonte assured his fans that he's very much alive and still fighting the good fight. In recent years he's been working with young imprisoned Americans, an ever-growing population.

The event was attended by 300 people and raised funds for Shared Interest to provide Black South African entrepreneurs with access to credit and technical support to launch small businesses and to create jobs.

Shared Interest's executive director, Donna Katzin, said the organization has built a $14 million loan guarantee fund, benefiting nearly 2.2 million South Africans. “Tonight, we celebrate this progress, and invite you – as campaign builders, investors and donors – to enable us to reach the next 500,000 beneficiaries; shrink the gap between Southern Africa’s banks and impoverished communities; and lay the foundations for the next generation of our work,” she said.

Other award recipients were:  freedom fighter and social justice activist Father Michael Lapsley, of South Africa; the South African pop band Freshlyground; and, ,J.P. Morgan, a supporter of programs that empower South African small businesses, which received the Corporate Award at the gala.

Father Lapsley, an Anglican priest and freedom fighter, received the Promoting Healing, Reconciliation and Hope Award for his life’s work in the healing of memories of South Africans affected by apartheid – enabling victims and perpetrators to reconcile and reclaim their humanity. 

Freshlyground was honored with the Voices of the Next Generation Award for their ongoing efforts to give back to the community through its social outreach programs and concerts.

John Coulter, J.P. Morgan’s Senior Country Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa, accepted the Visionary Investment in South Africa’s Communities Award on behalf of J.P. Morgan. J.P. Morgan was recognized for its focus on investments towards the most vulnerable people in Africa through strategic partnerships, and support for sustainable programs with measurable impact.

Caroline Clarke, Executive Editor of BLACK ENTERPRISE and host of BE Business Report, was the evening host. 

This year’s major corporate sponsors were South African Airways, Merck and Black Entertainment Television. Gala corporate partners were Nielsen and Johnson & Johnson.

Event Chairs were Eddie Bergman, executive director of Africa Travel Association, and Tim Smith, senior vice president at Walden Asset Management. Honorary Chairs were The Honorable David and Mrs. Joyce Dinkins; Consul General and Mrs. George Monyemangene; and Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and Ms. Rosieda Shabodien.


Find out more about the organization's work via www.sharedinterest.org  


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