The AV Club published an interview last week with the brilliant Harry Belafonte, and while reading it I was really caught up in the story of his 84 remarkable years.
He served in World War II, studied alongside Marlon Brando, sang onstage with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, was a friend of Paul Robeson, adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., campaigner for John F. Kennedy and even gave Bob Dylan his recording debut. For over six decades he has been a musical and political voice, an instrument for change and a friend to oppressed peoples across the world. And he sang ‘The Banana Boat Song’.
The whole interview is hugely quotable and full of fascinating bits and pieces, but this is my favourite part.
My first deepest moment in being touched by the power of art was when, in this little black theater in Harlem, we were given a play called Sean O’Casey’s Juno And The Paycock, by an Irish playwright. About something that was very familiar to us—not in the facts of its own existence in Ireland, but in the spiritual sense we felt, as black people, what the Irish were feeling in their resistance against the British. Thank God that it was written in Irish brogue, because my West Indian accent made it kind of easy for me to speak to the text. That was the play that Paul Robeson came to see, and he came to see that play because his friend was Sean O’Casey. He couldn’t wait to get back to Sean O’Casey to tell him, “Wait ’til you see what black people are doing with your Irish play in Harlem!” And in that context, he said, “You’re touching a nerve center. You’re touching a place where you become the instrument through which all people are made familiar one to the other. You’re taking diversity and turning it into a social harvest for the growth of your own imagination.” So rather than fear who I am, listen to my song, and you might enjoy it and rejoice in wanting to join in on the harmony. These things are not just intellectual theory or something I’ve come up on; it was really what drove my consciousness every day.