At the Crossroads of Artistry & Activism: Dr. Harry Belafonte Visits Berklee College of Music

dr. belafonte

unedited.There was no shortage of great moments on last Thursday evening March 6, 2014. On that night Berklee College of Music honored Harry Belafonte – activist, humanitarian, actor, singer, truth teller – with an honorary doctorate and I was lucky to be in the number that evening to witness awe inspiring moment after moment after moment.

Each and every performance was perfect (no hyperbole). The show was visually stunning with many performing in bright colored Ankara and other ethnic flavored apparel. And that group of performers so accurately reflected the diversity of the Berklee community and the world.

It’s impossible to say what exactly was my top favorite moment. For one thing Belafonte’s speech included so many nuggets of wisdom and inspiration. He talked about his work down in Florida with The Dream Defenders which was especially meaningful to me having just this year worked to bring Ciara Taylor, the Political Director of the The Dream Defenders, to Berklee for our MLK Celebration Brunch. In Belafonte’s speech he passed down a message shared with him by actor and activist Paul Robeson calling “artists the guardians of truth.” The connection to Ciara’s message back in January that “artists are guardians of our future” was not lost on me. At the MLK brunch Ciara shared that ”As artists, as guardians of our culture, your most important attribute to this world is your responsibility to not only guide the future of this nation, but countries across the globe through music.”

Thank you Universe for confirmation that I’m on the right path.

I was shocked to learn of Dr. Belafonte’s connection to the 1984 film Beat StreetDespite owning Beat Street and having watched it more than any human should watch any one film, I had no idea his connection to it until last Thursday. Turns out Belafonte co produced the film as well as volumes 1 & 2 of the original motion picture soundtrack. He even wrote some of the soundtrack’s songs. I’ve since found this video of Dr. Belafonte, Kool Herc (the originator of hip hop), Melle Mel, and others discussing the film at New York City’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture back in August 2013.

I know my favorite moment included when, from my 3rd row center vantage point, I looked up and saw Dr. Belafonte singing “We Shall Overcome” and I was overcome: I began to ugly cry like a two year old. Sigh. You know in this space of reflection and appreciation I can still feel what I felt last Thursday. We all know there is something incredibly special – kinetic, electric, dynamic, palpable, visceral – when music and activism intersect. I left the Berklee Performance Center on Thursday feeling a sensation that I haven’t been able to shake since. …and I hope I never do.

Perhaps you’ll know that feeling too after viewing this video of an unreal rendition of “We are the World” performed at the event by Berklee students faculty and staff. Towards the middle of the performance Dr. Belafonte stood to join the Berklee performers. Despite pushing away the microphone away from his mouth, Belafonte’s mere presence in the choir brought immense joy to the crowd. There’s no doubt that collectively we realized we were witnessing something of the charts special.

Sigh. On Thursday evening we learned from Berklee President Roger Brown that a literal translation of Belafonte is “beautiful fountain.” Really! And that’s Harry Belafonte’s “Christian name” as they say in some parts. And no name could be more fitting or prophetic to the life he’d lead because a “beautiful fountain” is exactly what he is. He is a fountain that has poured love, and kindness, and generosity, and beauty, and compassion, and all good things to this world and its inhabitants. I am a proud of beneficiary of his legacy.

As I wrote in response to my friend, colleague, and brother in the truth movement Matt Jenson’s blog post Put Under A Spell with Harry Belafonte“if he can do all he did?!?! …we have no excuses. We each can use our lives to unselfishly do a fraction of what all he did to put this planet on the right path.”

Thanks. Yes.