A lot has made of the comments that the legendary Harry Belafonte leveled at Beyonce and Jay-Z for their lack of activism on behalf of the community in which they derived. So loud was the chatter, that Beyonce’s camp felt the need to send a list of all her charitable contributions to the Wall Street Journal in order to defend the singer.
The response from Beyonce’s camp alone told me that people did not understand what Belafonte was saying in his assertion that the power couple must do more. Giving money to a few great causes is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t equate to activism.
What Belafonte is referring to is activism.
He took to the Daily Beast to clarify his statements. He didn’t back down from what he said, but he broke it down so people could understand the difference between charity and activism.
Here is what he wrote:
At a recent film festival in Locarno, Switzerland, I was asked by the press if I thought that the world was better off today than during the civil-rights revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I responded by saying that there was little doubt that our movement changed the world, as we knew it. Dr. King and the nonviolence revolution altered the global landscape. I told them that in the goals we set for ourselves in our movement, we never lost a battle. Martin Luther King Jr. knew and revered the artist. Even as he enriched our legacy with his own storytelling, he knew and believed that the service rendered by artists was critical to our movement and, among other things, would inspire while filling the well of knowledge needed for the children of generations to come.
The press interviews lingered awhile on questions of artists and activism, and in responding to inquiries I, at one point, identified some of the artists I most admired as activists. Danny Glover, Sean Penn, Mike Farrell, Susan Sarandon, Alfre Woodard, to name but a few. But then the exchange began to focus specifically on high-profile African-American artists. Because they sit at the top of the list, I was asked in particular about Jay-Z and Beyoncé. I made the point that the absence of high-profile blacks in the political struggle concerning the issues of race, poverty, and the disenfranchisement of the poor is disappointingly evident. From the highest pinnacles of Wall Street to the kings and queens of entertainment, to the gods and goddesses of sports, never before at these levels have we boasted such large numbers of black participants. All this at the same time black America is condemned to be the harvest of the largest prison population on the face of the earth, the most destroyed by the diseases of poverty, the most undereducated, the most diminished for lack of self-worth and the most punished by the prejudices of an unworthy justice system. The list goes on.
I have no animus for those who are touched by such heights of fame. I was one of them. But as history has evolved, our individual and collective indifference to the vast suffering of our fellow beings is, for me, unconscionable. The gift of art is a gift of opportunity to change the landscape. Artists can do remarkable things.
Robeson entertained us by inspiring us as all great artists do. With 21st-century technology, we can now reach the farthest regions of human habitation and through our art learn to love the quality and abundance of our diversity. Artists are the gatekeepers of truth and we should keep open its gates forever.