Award winning actor/singer/activist/humanitarian Harry Belafonte will be at the Akron Civic Theatre on Saturday to be the keynote speaker for the Summit Academy Steel Dragon Steel Pan Festival. Steel Dragon founder and Summit Academy music teacher Angel Lawrie sent Belafonte a package detailing the program and the event, and he agreed to participate.
Belafonte, 85, is no longer able to perform unless “the spirit moves me at the moment,” but will show his 2012 biographical film Sing Your Song.
Q: Do you recall having ever been to Akron?
A: Yes, I’ve been to Akron before. I remember coming there a long time ago for an event. I think the event had to do with another group that was running a political campaign for Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Akron was one of the stops on a fundraiser or some kind of mobilization. I don’t think I’ve ever performed in Akron.
Q: What was it about Summit Academy’s presentation that inspired you to come here?
A: The idea that education is not only identified through critical analysis as important, but a community that is seeking to engage itself and becoming more self-reliant and becoming more self-dependent, as well as reaching out for a greater sense of interdependency. That attracted me to come.
The scene that surrounds culture and art and the film that we’ll be looking at, all gave me a platform that I felt comfortable with in coming to talk with the citizens who say they want to hear me. I don’t think I bring them as much as they bring me.
Q: Music is one of the few things that is able to bypass many of the social, biological and other barriers that often separate us. Why is that?
A: Because I think it’s one of the most vulnerable experiences common to the human experience. It gives people a chance to go to places where they don’t feel threatened. I think we find in song, we find in music, that which soothes us and we find in those that are the practitioners of that art are men and women who bring us an opportunity to celebrate.
Sometimes it’s very giddy, abstract, fleeting ways and sometimes it’s in very profound and in-depth ways. But no matter the way in which you receive it, it doesn’t offend you and it gives you an opportunity to gain insight as to how others may feel and how others might think on any number of issues. … When you look at Bruce Springsteen and what he does and you look at Britney Spears and what she does, then you have quite a big contrast of styles and content and all sorts of things that all attract large numbers of people and all for different reasons. The only thing they have in common is they are music, and no one feels threatened by that.
Q: Given that there are plenty of tangible examples of how music and arts can be important and effective, why are they generally considered less valued parts of education?
A: I think the real power and the real force of art has always been co-opted by those who see its power and choose to use it in the service of their narrow interests, and force abuse on culture and art to never address the things that people most want to have addressed.
By that I mean in simple terms, it’s one thing when you’re singing for a paycheck from Time Warner or Sony or making a film for 20th Century Fox [as opposed to] doing those things for human development and for human need; those are two very different constituencies that make different commands.
My mentor [actor/activist] Paul Robeson once said to me, artists are the gatekeepers of truth, and it’s through our prism and through our gift that we constantly impact upon the way people interpret the history of their time or the history of their past, and also draw sustenance on how they may want to face the future. I think that most folks in most societies … have seen culture as one of the most important ingredients in the human mix.
Most totalitarian nations and countries and people with a totalitarian, oppressive agenda, the first thing they seek to do is control the culture. [Joseph] Goebbels, the great Nazi propagandist, once said control what people know and you control what people do, and one of the biggest ways to control what people know is to control artists. And if you control the instruments through which artists must communicate, you have a leg up on contaminating content.
So I think a lot of artists, who are getting inordinate paychecks to do things that are of not very much substance in terms of human growth and human development, have really surrendered a much more important aspect of their birthright and their gift by not being far more outspoken and far more committed to causes that can be identified directly with human, political and social involvement. Hence, I thank God for Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and the rest I think have an awful lot to answer for.
— Malcolm X Abram