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Harry Belafonte on his artistic value and activism

Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor and activist whose widespread success blazed the trail for other black artists in the 1950s, died Tuesday at the age of 96.

A Harlem kid, Mr. Belafonte used his platform during the heyday of the entertainment industry to talk often about his music, how black lives were portrayed on screen and, most importantly to him, the civil rights movement. Here are some of the insights Mr. Belafonte offered The New York Times during his decades in the public eye, as they emerged:

Mr. Belafonte’s string of hits, including “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica’s Farewell,” ignited Americans’ interest in Caribbean music, leading his record label to promote him as “Card King of Lypso”.

But Mr Belafonte has never embraced that title of monarchy, refusing to see “purism” as a “cover for mediocrity”, explaining that he sees his work as a mashup of musical styles.

In 1959, he told The New York Times Magazine that folk music “hides a great sense of drama and powerful lyricism”. He also admitted frankly: “My voice is not good.”

In 1993, he told The Times that he used his songs to “describe the human condition and give people an idea of ​​what might be happening globally, from my experience.”

For example, he says “Day-O” is a way of life.

“The song is about my father, my mother, my uncle, the men and women who toiled in the banana fields, the sugar cane fields in Jamaica,” he said. “It’s a classic work song.”

Mr. Belafonte’s musical success has helped him establish himself as a leading figure in Hollywood. In the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Belafonte and his friend Sidney Poitier landed more substantial, nuanced roles than black actors had previously been given.

Still, Mr Belafonte is largely dissatisfied.

Writing for The Times in 1968, he complained that “the true beauty, soul and integrity of the black community are seldom represented on television.”

“The media is dominated by concepts of white supremacy and racist attitudes,” he wrote. “Television excludes the reality of Black life, including all its grievances, passions, and aspirations, because depicting that life would be to indict (or perhaps enrich?) much of what is now white America and its institutions. Networks and sponsors don’t want that .”

Mr Belafonte emphasized that his 10-year-old son sees few black heroes on television.

“He was stripped of the nobility of his tradition and the values ​​that would have complemented his positive growth and manhood,” he wrote. “Instead, everything failed him and gave him a sense of inferiority. thugs and social issues without seeing him as a whole person.”

Some 25 years later, Mr Belafonte is wary, telling The Times that little has changed.

“Even today, on the big screen, the movies that are always successful are the ones where black people appear in ways that white people in America buy,” he said in 1993. unintended and commercially unviable.”

Even though Mr. Belafonte was at the height of his entertainment career, he remained focused on activism and civil rights.

“Back in 1959,” Mr. Belafonte told The Times in 1981, “I totally believed in the civil rights movement. I had a personal commitment to it and I had a personal breakthrough — I made the first black television Special; I’m the first black person to perform at the Waldorf Astoria. I feel like if we can turn this country around, things will fall into place.”

But Mr Belafonte lamented that by the mid-1970s the movement was over.

“When the doors of Hollywood closed to minorities and blacks in the late ’70s,” he said, “many black artists had been exploited for 10 years. Then one day they found out that the shop was closed.”

Mr Belafonte remained outspoken about politics in his later years. In 2002, he accused Secretary of State Colin L. Powell of reneging on principle and “going into the master’s house”; he called President George W. Bush a “terrorist” in 2006 and lamented modern celebrity in 2012 “Abandoned social responsibility”.

“There is no evidence that artists have the same passion and the same commitment as artists of my time,” he told The Times in 2016. “The absence of black artists feels very strong because the oppression is most evident in the black community.”

In 2016 and 2020, he visited the opinion pages of The New York Times urging voters to reject Donald J. Trump.

“Voting is probably the most important weapon in our arsenal,” Mr Belafonte told The Times in a 2016 article. “The things that are needed now are the same things that were needed before,” he added. “Sports don’t die because struggle doesn’t die.”

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