Harry Belafonte delivers a wake-up call

ALBANY, N.Y. - Even with a raspy 90-year-old voice, Harry Belafonte still makes some serious noise. No, the King of Calypso doesn't belt out the Caribbean tunes that propelled him to prominence in the mid-1950s any more. His singing performances ended more than a few years ago.

Instead, Belafonte summons his cords these days to promote humanitarian and civil rights causes, a lifelong undertaking that is the sole focus of his career's final act. His appearances now examine why President Donald Trump was elected.

"How did he slip through the net?" Belafonte said he asks himself during a recent telephone interview with The Eagle.

When he answers questions from WAMC's Alan Chartock at The Egg in Albany on Saturday night, Belafonte said he will not only be trying to reach people who haven't heard his message of racial equality but also those who have and need some further convincing - or reminding.

"If you don't [preach] to the choir, they will stop singing," Belafonte said, paraphrasing something his friend Martin Luther King, Jr. once uttered.

In addition to King, Jr., Belafonte's fight for various political causes has been influenced by other famous figures, such as Nelson Mandela. But he's also frequently in contact with a younger generation of activists who are combating racial inequality. For example, unemployed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest racial oppression and, consequently, spurred others to do the same.

"I see Colin regularly," Belafonte said, noting that Kaepernick is constantly trying to build on his perspective. Carmen Perez, another prominent activist, connected them.

"We've stayed steadfast friends...I'm flattered," Belafonte said.

In the past, Belafonte has been critical of celebrities who aren't engaging in social activism, including Jay-Z and Beyonce. He also compared Colin Powell to a "house" slave when Powell was working in George W. Bush's administration. But Belafonte is pleased with celebrities' current political activism. "Considerable progress," he said, citing John Legend, Usher and Alicia Keys as examples of public figures doing their part. On Thursday, he was schedule to meet with Sean Combs.

"I've got to learn what his new name is," Belafonte said of the man who has performed as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy and Diddy, among other monikers.

Besides the counsel he can provide on being an activist, Belafonte also appeals to a younger generation — or any generation, really — because of his breadth of experiences in entertainment. He learned acting with Sidney Poitier, starred in films and sold millions of albums all in the early part of his career. He has won a Tony, Emmy and multiple Grammys.

Yet, activism has always been his focus. He says he didn't mean to put any celebrities down with his remarks over the years.

"[It] was just a wake-up call," he said.

He'll be giving it to another audience this weekend in Albany.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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