Harry Belafonte sat down for an interview with The Hollywood Reporter for a Q&A that was supposed to focus on his receiving the Golden Leopard Honor Award, which was bestowed on the legendary singer and actor by the Locarno Film Festival. Instead, the respected entertainer used the opportunity to speak out against what he sees as a power structure that continues to oppress the masses despite decades of activism. Belafonte particularly derides President Obama for maintaining a status quo that enables our government to violate civil liberties, while calling out black stars like Jay-Z and Beyoncé for their apathy, when they have the ability to inspire change.
“The power in many societies has become almost absolute,” Belafonte told the Tinseltown industry outlet. “What we did during the Bush period, what we still continue to do, even with Barack Obama, is the continuency of not changing the paradigm, of not changing the view. We still have laws that encourage torture, we did not change Guantanamo, we have laws that allow the police to arrest you at any time, not having to tell you why, and take you wherever they want. This kind of capitalism is taking us to the doorstep of [a] Fourth Reich, I think.”
These are strong words from one many would consider an elder statesmen of the Civil Rights Movement. Belafonte, along with entertainers such as Sidney Poitier and Josephine Baker, are part of an older guard of African-Americans in the public eye for whom it was as important to be politically active as it was to be wealthy and watched. Baker refused to play for segregated audiences during the ’50s to protest American racism. Poitier used his success to push for greater integration on Hollywood film crews.
Belafonte’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement are numerous — including financially assisting Dr. Martin Luther King, who considered Belafonte to be a close confidante. He is dismayed that today’s African-American celebrities do not in his opinion reflect the same level of dedication. Belafonte even believes that at least one white star could teach black luminaries a thing or two about social awareness.
“I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility,” he accused. “That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”
Jay-Z has been vocal in his support of President Obama’s support of marriage equality. Beyoncé has also publicly endorsed Frank Ocean’s revelation that his first love was a man.
Aside from these instances, it is difficult to name cases in which high-profile black celebrities have spoken out on political issues.
Jay-Z has also been criticized for creating “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts for sale under his Rocawear label. While clearly capitalizing on the publicity of the Occupy Wall Street movement that addresses economic inequality, sales of the shirts only benefit the superstar’s bottom line.
Does this type of behavior support Belafonte’s claim that today’s black celebrities are not doing enough to help others? Perhaps so. When stars like Will and Jaden Smith promote non-violence in Philadelphia, they often underscore the vacuum of African-Americans with cachet who take similar pains to make a difference. What do you make of Belafonte’s assertions?
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.