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Harry Belafonte, mixing artistry and activism

Harry Belafonte connected with Canadians over the years, and he often spoke with the CBC about his life as an artist and as an activist.

The singer sometimes spoke out when he spoke with the CBC

Harry Belafonte at the O'Keefe Centre, Nov., 1965. (Roy Martin/CBC Still Photo Collection)

Harry Belafonte liked Canada in his heyday as a performer.

He headlined music specials on the CBC through the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and gave concert performances in cities across the country.

Often interviewed by the CBC about his music, he also talked about his passionate commitment to social justice. 

The singer and actor had made a monumental achievement with his 1956 recording Calypso, the first album ever to reach gold status with sales of a million copies.  

Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte speaks at an equal rights rally in New York on May 17, 1969. (Jacob Harris/Associated Press/Canadian Press)

But by the early 1960s he was also a familiar voice and supporter behind the civil rights movement in the U.S. — attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fifty-eight years ago, CBC's Close-Up dedicated a program to an interview with Belafonte.  

He talked about his entry into the entertainment field, and what he would like to do in his career. 

On the subject of his outspoken activism in the area of civil rights, interviewer Diana Maddox asked about being "vocal" with his social views, and whether he felt a responsibility to publicly voice his personal opinions.

"I think that very basically this is the role of the function of the artist," he began. 

He further explained that [the artist] "should in fact conduct himself as a mirror of the society." 

"I do not find it easy to divorce myself from my personal beliefs," he said. "Because of the success, the obligation is even more emphasized."

The singer speaks about not letting the desire for success stand in the way of staying true to his own beliefs. 1:38

"If it costs you something, would you still do it?" Maddox asked.  

Sidney Poitier presents the NAACP Spingarn Medal to Harry Belafonte, Feb. 1, 2013. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

"Yes," he agreed, adding that there were some who would say his "social and political beliefs" were not the "safest kind of  conduct" for someone pursuing success.

"I think that I would rather pursue my beliefs and stand by them than have a successful career, if I have to make the choice," he concluded.

In November 1967, CBC broadcast a TV special with Belafonte and various guests perfoming at the O'Keefe Centre.  That month he also appeared on CBC's The Way It Is.

Interviewer Dinah Christie asked just one question: "As a very busy man in your own right, how can you get involved in politics?"

Referencing the recent election of two black mayors in U.S. cities, Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana and Carl Stokes in Cleveland, he delivered a lengthy answer, commenting on some of the the conservative artists who had recently participated in U.S. politics. 

'No time to leave the arena'

Explaining that he felt that he was at a "crossroads" in the political arena, and it wasn't time for him to leave it, he further said that he didn't work for Hatcher because he was black.

"I'm not a racist, I don't believe that because a man is black he's right," he elaborated. He then spoke of the price of racism and its influence on his own life.

"I grew up not only with racism and segregation in America, but I grew up in the West Indies, under colonialism," he said.

"The reason I hang around," he concluded, was so that he could face his children in his old age, and say "I did all that I could with what was at my disposal."

The singer reflects on how his personal life experience has driven his political involvement. 4:58

In 1977 he spoke again with the CBC. He was embarking on a cross-Canada tour for the benefit of the orchestras in cities he played — a fund-raiser he repeated in 1983.

In Saskatoon, he talked about including the smaller city on the '77 tour.  Having performed there a number of times, he said he felt that the community should not be left out because it was not as large as the others. 

Asked about his choice of songs, he related it to his study of different world cultures.

'The function of art is to inform'

The singer, in Saskatoon to perform with the symphony, talks about choosing songs that bridge cultures. 0:53

Describing the process as having "a number of factors," he said it began with whether it was "a piece of art." Because for him, "the function of art is to inform," he said, he weighed whether a song from one culture could be understood and appreciated by another culture.

By successfully introducing a new song that people had not heard before but liked, he said, "then I have made a bridge, I have brought cultures together."

Harry Belafonte at the O'Keefe Centre, Nov. 1965. (Roy Martin/CBC Still Photo Collection)