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Questions for Harry Belafonte

August 26, 2001

Questions for Harry Belafonte


Q You're about to release a boxed set, called ''The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music.'' It crosses several centuries and several continents. What's the thread of continuity?

The oppression that caused this music to be what it was. Because people were denied culture, denied language, denied any ties with the past, they really had to create a whole new way to communicate -- not only with each other, but with those that commanded the daily agenda. The plantation songs are filled with metaphor. Later the protest could become more open.

If we carried this forward to contemporary music, to Destiny's Child and Jay-Z, would the same line hold?

Absolutely. You can trace the rap form back to the earliest songs. Black music never really deviates far from its African base, no matter what costume it brings to adorn itself.

Why include minstrel music in the set, since much of minstrelsy was so degrading?

As degrading as the ''coon songs'' were and are, they became essential to our survival, how those who determined our destiny would have us be heard. And we accommodated that. To not make room for that now is to dismiss a full understanding of the cruelty of slavery.

Do you think the stereotypes in gangsta rap make it a new form of minstrelsy?

There's certainly much more anger in rap than I've ever evidenced in coon songs. Coon songs seem more willing to placate. In the rap which we find degrading, you can hear the rage, you can hear the anger, you can hear the self-hate very clearly defined, in the absence of the same kind of tyranny that those who lived in the coon-song period faced. Those rappers are caught in a trick bag, because it's a way to make unconscionable sums of money and a way to absent yourself from any sense of moral responsibility. It's all in the name of ''that's the way we are.'' Well, is there more to us than being just the way we are? Do we have no responsibility? Do we have no sense of dignity?

You were with Dr. King days before he was assassinated. What did you guys talk about?

America. The last time I saw him was in my home. He was in a zone of discomfort. He said: ''We fought long and hard for our cause, and shall prevail, but I really get the sense that we may be integrating into a burning house. The question for me is whether or not we can be firemen.'' That prophetic thought wasn't as well understood as it is now.

You once described yourself as being in a constant state of rebellion, fueled by anger. How is your anger different at 74 than at 34?

The anger hasn't changed. I've got to be a part of whatever the rebellion is that tries to change all this. The anger is a necessary fuel. Rebellion is healthy.

As a teenager you passed for white. What did you learn from the experience?

My mother, who was a single parent, used to drift from neighborhood to neighborhood and escape in the night when we couldn't pay the rent. Uncles and cousins would pack up the furniture. She was very fair-skinned. She would affect an accent and come into a neighborhood as Spanish, so we would get into a clean, albeit poor neighborhood that was white. We'd be Greek, or Irish or Italian -- anything but the African identity. We were able to integrate until we had to move again. As kids we had gangs, and the white block fought the black block, and it was expected that I would stand with the neighborhood.

I always conveniently had something to do. It was a hard time, but you developed a cunning and a con. And those skills still apply.

What ever happened to ''Cork,'' the Amos 'n' Andy movie you were writing with Robert Altman?

We're still writing it. When he first talked to me about it, I thought he was filled with absolute insanity, just for wanting to touch the subject matter. But we talked about it, and it got at the question of what does race really mean, and how America's really one big Amos 'n' Andy anyway. It's about the mask.

You've been active in the fight against prostate cancer. How is your health these days?

Better than I would have ever hoped for. My cancer is in the fifth year in remission. BMG is talking about more recordings. I do about 70 or 80 concerts a year.

Are you still singing ''Hava Nagilah''?

Life is not worthwhile without it. Most Jews in America learned that song from me.

A few years ago your daughter Shari posed for Playboy. What were the family discussions like?

Which room do we hang the center section in. She and I had our moments. Would I have rather had she not do it? Yes. But that was her decision, and she wrestles with life in substantive ways. And she is cute.

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