To Harry Belafonte, the politically charged label of ‘radical’ is one he proudly embraces. His message to a capacity Unity Days audience at Rider University on Tuesday, October 12: stand by the courage of your convictions, and stand up to oppression.
Sean Ramsden

Harry Belafonte addresses a capacity Unity Days audience at Rider University on Tuesday, October 12

To Harry Belafonte, the politically charged label of ‘radical’ is one he proudly embraces. “The word is simply defined as a change from the norm, a variation from traditional forms,” he explained. “But we have gotten to a point where we have made the word ‘radical’ something obscene.”

Belafonte, who for generations charmed fans with his unique voice for song and earned acclaim for his talent as a dramatic actor, is also an unabashed agent for social change, and has spent the entirety of his career in entertainment making full use of the platform afforded him by his celebrity. His message to a capacity Unity Days audience at Rider University on Tuesday, October 12: stand by the courage of your convictions, and stand up to oppression.

“Very early on, I learned there are prices you must pay for the ideas you have,” Belafonte said to those who came to hear his Unity Days keynote address. Traditionally convening students, faculty and staff together to celebrate the diverse elements that make up the Rider community, Rider’s 13th annual Unity Days focused specifically on “1960-2010: 50 Years of Social Change,” a span of time that essentially coincides with Belafonte’s career. And during that time, he has been an active participant in the movement.

Best known for his Jamaican-influenced Calypso music and his Broadway and film credits, the Emmy and Tony-award winning Belafonte was also heavily involved in American politics and the Civil Rights movement. Appointed as cultural adviser to the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy, he was later named a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF in the 1980s, where he served as an organizer for the We are the World project, which raised millions of dollars for emergency assistance to Africa, primarily through sales of the hit 1985 single that bore its name.

At the outset of his career, Belafonte was preparing to make his singing debut at the Village Vanguard in New York, when he was visited by legendary entertainer and scholar Paul Robeson, who had befriended him not long before.

“He told me, ‘Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are,’” recalled Belafonte, who was yet to fully appreciate the impact of Robeson’s words on him. “Years later, when I heard an entire stadium of Japanese fans singing out ‘Day-O!’, I understood real power – the power of a platform,” he explained. “I needed to ask myself, ‘how do you mold this moment to say what you need to say?’”

Belafonte said that part of this realization was that the music was more a means of earning the platform than a message itself.

“The Banana Boat Song – Day-O – is a song from my roots. It’s a song of bitterness from the plantations,” he said of the tune, whose signature lyric is now often heard in sports arenas as a means of igniting fans’ energy. “It’s about banana cutting all night on a drink of rum.”

The roots of Belafonte’s social activism go back to his mother, a Jamaican woman who raised him and his brother in Harlem, N.Y., after being abandoned by her husband, Belafonte’s father.

“I learned from her – a woman not highly educated – and in her struggle, I watched the magic of life unfold,” he recalled. “I saw her repeatedly resist people who would have her feel worthless because of her color or her gender.”

Later, as a munitions loader in the United States Navy during World War II, Belafonte was told “many stories of democracy,” and that “we would return to an America much more generous than the one we left,” he said of the promises he and other soldiers of color were told. Returning home, however, Belafonte found a nation seemingly more determined to keep African-Americans relegated to second-class status than ever before. In particular, he noted the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

“You have a choice to either submit to tyranny or take a stand,” he said. “I decided on the latter.

“I began to listen to speakers who had ideas about change, and how to live up to the Bill of Rights,” he continued. “In that, I found my life in the theater.”

Belafonte began spending time at a Harlem theater, dazzled by the power behind the words and emotions of the actors he saw perform. There, he met Robeson, who represented the actualization of Black America to the nascent performer.

“He was the tallest tree in the forest,” Belafonte recalled of Robeson’s near-mythic image in the black community. “He was a man of enormous intellectual power, and he was here – here, among us.”

He began to study theater and perform as a singer, channeling the socially conscious folk ballads and blues of artists like Woody Guthrie and “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. “These were the songs and the passion of the chain gang,” Belafonte recalled. “The social context of the material overwhelmed me.”

This music, along with Robeson’s sage advice, launched the increasingly influential Belafonte into activism, and through his life in the Civil Rights movement, he became a trusted adviser to figures as diverse as John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt.

More recently, Belafonte was spurred by what he called the federal government’s bungled reaction to disasters like Hurricane Katrina and more isolated incidents of civil-rights violations in the United States. He is currently involved in a autobiographical film project entitled Sing Your Song, what he called the “journey of a life from a personal place.”

Belafonte encouraged the students of Rider to work to leave a legacy stemming from the struggle for equality and unity. He said that the struggle still requires citizens to view social and political policy with a jaded eye, and that knowledge and information are the most powerful equalizers against tyranny.

“Who do you fear the most? That’s the person you ought to learn the most about,” he said. “Keep learning, and don’t give up. And one day, someone will walk into your room and say, ‘Sing your song. Sing your song.’”