Who isn’t familiar with and doesn’t greatly admire activist/actor/singer/songwriter, the one-and-only Harry Belafonte? And we all realize how important it is for our treasured elders to receive their flowers while they can enjoy them. Well, you will have a chance to demonstrate those feelings by joining him for his 95th Birthday Celebration at The Town Hall at 123 W 43rd Street on March 1. For decades, Mr. Belafonte has been a source of pride and a trailblazer for the Black Community. Tickets to the celebration will range from $47.50 to $125.00. The monies will go towards benefiting, Sankofa.org, a non-profit organization that he, his daughter Gina Belafonte and Raoul Roach started 10 years ago. It will also mark the inaugural awarding of the Harry Belafonte Social Justice Awards which will be presented to Angela Davis, Rashad Robinson, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Dr. Cornel West, Darren Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, former Attorney General Eric Holder and Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
Gina Belafonte recently sat down and spoke about the upcoming event and her father. Describing her Dad she shared, “He is loving, supportive, a mentor, fun, funny, great sense of humor, but he’s very serious about the arts and activism and the role that he plays in that base.”
Gina is one of four children of Harry Belafonte, her siblings include Adrienne, Shari, and David. Recalling growing up with a father who was a beloved, renowned, singer/songwriter/actor/activist, she fondly recalled, “He was often very busy in rehearsals, touring, shooting a picture, television show or doing strategies around the civil rights movement, women’s movement, anti-apartheid movement, ambassador to UNICEF. As an artist, it was a blessing for us, we got to go to his shows and be backstage. I got a firsthand experience of production. After I graduated from college my father asked me to be his acting coach, so we were together that way. So, he has included me in his artistic endeavors. When we were younger, he would tailor his musical shows for when we were off from school and we could go with him. Other times he would do things where we could vacation as a family and he wouldn’t be working.”
Inspired her whole life by his activism, Belafonte explained, “He and my mother gave me a foundation and an ideology to be rooted in and it very much shaped how I framed my own political engagement and process. My activism is rooted in the Kenyan non-violence philosophy. Using the arts as a tool to educate, motivate and activate people towards social change.” Considering her father’s legacy, Belafonte declared, “His legacy is to participate everyday of your life to assist in the liberation, health and well-being of a community.”
March 1 is going to have a three-fold purpose, to celebrate her father’s 95th birthday, to have the first Harry Belafonte Social Justice Awards and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Sankofa.org. Discussing the impact of this upcoming event, Belafonte said, “This is a big day for me first and foremost honoring my father and his contribution to social justice, activism and the arts. But, also the opportunity to award and thank iconic activists and contributors to our community and in the process to celebrate the hard work of Sankofa.org for 10 years. This is the first time we’re doing a public fundraising event, over the years the organization has been sustained by grants. I wanted to ensure that my father understood that we will stay committed to the work at hand, to serving our communities to use art to engage young people. And to acknowledge people who have served side by side with my father. It means a great deal to me to give social justice awards to this year’s distinguished winners.”
Reflecting on why they started Sankofa.org Belafonte recalled, “What we discovered was that we wanted to find a way to institutionalize the capacity of my father or someone like him to create a space where artists can use their platform as a way for change. We wanted celebrities that are well known and community organizers. They can come together with grassroots organizations and come in contact with people in the neighborhoods to find out what has to be changed. Artists can’t helicopter into an issue and think they can change it and bolt. And my father has a tremendous track record. We used his reputation in the community for activism and mine as well. We wanted to use art as a base for community activism and hope. We wanted people to trust the brand, come together and begin talking to one another and breaking down silos. We’re a national organization, founded in New York City and we did some of our first convening in Florida, St. Louis and New York. We do a lot of work in California. Because of COVID we don’t have a physical office so we’re in the metaverse.”
Sankofa.org has numerous programs to help different segments of the community. One of the programs that will benefit from the fundraising event has to do with assisting incarcerated individuals with successfully rejoining their communities once paroled. Belafonte explained, “It’s a program created by Sankofa.org and Creative Acts. We came up with an arts-based curriculum that uses virtual reality to reduce stress and trauma triggers for incarcerated men and women returning after being in prison for a long time. We have menus, items in the grocery store, automated checkout. When people have been in prison and been in solitary confinement, we have created scenarios and different kinds of content that we bring inside the facility and work with the clients. We go in multiple times within the year before they are released and get to know them. We do a weeklong program at the end, that includes mediation, poetry and work with them to dismantle the guard and help them become more in touch with their emotions. I and Sabra Williams and formerly incarcerated people are facilitators of the program and a behavioral psychologist. We have the largest prison population in the country, 95% of the people will come home to their communities. We want to use this program to help assist them in their reentry process. So that they can work through triggers. They can break down issues of shame about not being able to order in a restaurant or a fast-food system. A lot is about being able to work with these clients in a way that gives them opportunities to succeed. I’m also on the board of the Actors’ Gang—founded by Tim Robbins. Sabra Williams started the Actors Gang Prison Program–15 years, 13 prisons. I’ve been in prison abolition and reform for a long time. We also work with people who are currently out, but have been in prison for long stints and knows what it’s like.” In general, Sankofa.org deals with immigration, criminal justice, income disparity and violence.
This will be a night of a who’s who in the arts and civil rights as some of the attendees will include Aloe Blacc, John Legend, The Belafonte Alumni Band, Laurence Fishburne, Doug E Fresh, Danny Glover, Amy Goodman, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Moore, Q-Tip, Tim Robbins, Rev. Al Sharpton, Bryan Stevenson, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Jesse Williams, and Alfre Woodward. There will also be musical performances, video tributes, testimonials from civil rights and racial justice leaders. It will be an evening to remember. Thinking about the incredible attendees Belafonte commented, “My father put a lot of time in and he showed up for a lot of people and it is wonderful that all the different sectors of his life are being represented in the audience and are coming out to celebrate him. I am honored that they have accepted the invitation to participate and honor his life and legacy.”
Make your plans to go to The Town Hall. Belafonte encourages everyone to come. “First and foremost to honor my father and to have a wonderful night out, after we’ve been in COVID for so long. To be able to gather in community is a gift and we’d love you to support the ongoing work of Sankofa.org. We have all types of programs including a youth civic program with young artists, animators, poets, and musicians to engage people in the voting process. We also have a baby blanket community sew, people sew baby blankets and present them to new mothers who are homeless and formerly incarcerated. One of the highlights of the night is the Belafonte Alumni Band–men and women who have worked with my father for 23 years. They have been keeping his songs and arrangements going. I’m grateful to all the artists participating in the night and their contribution to Sankofa.org and my father’s legacy.” For tickets, visit www.TheTownHall.org.