Tuesday, March 1 was an evening to remember as actor/singer/civil rights icon and legendary humanitarian, Harry Belafonte celebrated his 95th birthday on West 43rd Street. It was a gathering of the adoring public and some of the biggest and most diverse groups of celebrities. Belafonte’s life and legacy were shared and saluted by the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Spike Lee, Alfre Woodward, Alicia Keys, Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Doug E. Fresh, Tim Robbins, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Michael Moore, John Legend, Common, Sean Combs, Malik Yoba, Lenny Kravitz, Q-Tip, Norman Lear, Bryan Stevenson, Jesse Williams, Aloe Blacc, Bill T. Jones, Sweet Honey in the Rock, with music by The Belafonte Alumni Band. While Belafonte watched live on remote from his home, many of those who honored him were physically at the theater while others came in remotely.
It also marked the 10th year anniversary of Sankofa.org, a non-profit organization founded in 2012 by Belafonte, his daughter Gina Belafonte and Raoul Roach. The organization has an incredible mission, seeking to educate, motivate and activate artists and allies in service of grassroots movements and equitable change. It focuses on issues of injustice that disproportionately affect the disenfranchised, the oppressed and the underserved. Sankofa.org deals with immigration, criminal justice, income disparity and violence. To recognize the importance of Sankofa.org, the inaugural Harry Belafonte Social Justice Awards were given to eight individuals who have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to justice: Angela Davis, Rashad Robinson, Kimberle Crenshaw, Dr. Cornel West, Darren Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, former Attorney General Eric Holder and Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
The wonderful evening began with members of The Harry Belafonte Alumni Band playing the drums and getting the crowd to feel the warmth and the love that this evening was about to bring. Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard took the stage and spoke of being there to honor Harry Belafonte, who takes on the plight of disenfranchised communities. Black and white video footage and photos showed a younger Belafonte and captured some of his professional work as an actor. You also see him being interviewed and talking about meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and realizing that he would always be by his side. Belafonte talks about his part in the Civil Rights Movement, alongside footage of his continuing his activism and speaking to young people today. He talks about being a part of their history. “All I can do is leave behind the crumbs of my experience. If you find value, pick it up and if you don’t bring something better,” Belafonte said.
His daughter Gina came out several times that evening to address the audience. She started by asking everyone to have a moment of silence for those who are captured as political prisoners. Along with marking Sankofa.org’s 10th anniversary, the evening’s event also served as a fundraiser for the organization. Throughout the evening the audience learned of the many programs that Sankofa.org runs.
Artists were referred to as “a society’s moral compass…the truth tellers.” Belafonte says people ask, “What can I do?” His response was, “What are you willing to do? What are you willing to sacrifice?” Sankofa.org held a two-day music festival, with a focus on mass incarceration. Statistics were shared that the U.S. has the largest prison population with 60% of those released ending up back in prison. The organization uses a virtual reality program to help inmates transition out.
Throughout the tribute at Town Hall, numerous clips were shown of Belafonte in some of his best known film roles and co-starring with his best friend, the late Sidney Poitier.
The entire evening was filled with wonderful moments of not only watching Belafonte’s screen work, but there were several interviews played of him telling the story of special moments in his life and it felt like he was sharing directly with the audience. There were incredible musical performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock and John Legend. Alicia Keys came on stage and shared, “We want to acknowledge our love for our royalty, which is Harry Belafonte.” She recited a poem and told an adorable story of Belafonte and his wife coming to her home and spending the day with her and her son Egypt. She witnessed an immediate and special connection that Egypt had with Mr. Belafonte. She made everyone smile as she said that upon Mr. Belafonte getting in his car to leave, her 4-year-old son said, “Bye, Mr. Ellafonte.” Throughout the evening messages flashed on a screen with sentiments like “Free All Political Prisoners.”
Celebrities who came out to honor Belafonte such as Malik Yoba and the Rev. Al Sharpton talked to the audience about the importance of passing the Voting Rights Act and about people getting involved in community organizing, demonstrations and marching and even engaging in boycotts. “Become civically engaged with the world around you,” Yoba exclaimed. Sankofa.org offers a Civic Series, an explanation of the voting process written and shared by young people using graphics and poetry.
One entertaining moment in the evening was Aloe Blacc singing, “That’s Right, The Woman Is Smarter,” a Caribbean song that became a sing-a-long as everyone swayed in their seats. The audience was dazzled and mesmerized as one lone dancer, choreographer Bill T. Jones, displaying a chiseled body, did a spellbinding dance to Belafonte singing “September Song.” He was absolutely fantastic!
Spike Lee and Laurence Fishburne talked about Belafonte’s acting career roots and him working with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier. They spoke of how Paul Robeson taught Belafonte that artists are the gatekeepers of truth. They spoke of the awards Belafonte has won through his lifetime.
We saw him in cinematic moments in “Bright Road,” and “Carmen Jones” (with Dorothy Dandridge). A story is also shared of a young Belafonte who was staying with friends in Beverly Hills and when he went for a walk, the police pulled him over, just because he was a Black man, walking alone in Beverly Hills. Scenes are shown from “Island in the Sun,” in which he broke a taboo, a Black man with a young white actress—people in the South were especially upset. “The World, The Flesh, The Devil” was another controversial film that Belafonte was in where race was an issue. “Odds Against Tomorrow” was another racial themed film. Belafonte also did racial comedies such as “The Angel Levine,” where he plays a Black angel sent to help a Jewish man. Of course, everyone went wild when they showed scenes from “Buck and the Preacher” and “Uptown Saturday Night.” Bringing things back to his Civil Rights Movement connection and power, we watched Belafonte speaking to young people about racism, in a famous scene from Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” You also see entertainment milestones Belafonte facilitated like “Beat Street,” which merged hip hop with mainstream. Street dance performers thrilled the audience with marvelous moves on stage and Doug E. Fresh came out beatboxing and rapping. John Legend sang a new song called, “The Island,” about a world more peaceful and loving. A large group of young people from the Impact Repertory Theatre Company thrilled the audience with an incredibly energized rendition of “We Are the World.”
If you want to contribute to Sankofa.org people go to their website. Belafonte has given our community a rich legacy to cherish and maintain.