Harry Belafonte to give MLK lecture
Martin Luther King lecture by Harry Belafonte
6 p.m. Jan. 28
Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston
Updated: January 23, 2013 11:06AM
Harry Belafonte in recent years has been positively Kanye-esque in his outspokenness.
The 85-year-old singer — a revered icon in American pop music, the King of Calypso, the resonant voice behind the 1956 classic “Day O (The Banana Boat Song)” — has tallied headlines for his frank opinions on matters ranging from U.S. foreign policy to race relations.
In 2002, Belafonte likened Secretary of State Colin Powell to a “house slave” for his acquiescence to the invasion of Iraq. He called President George W. Bush “the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world” during a 2006 meeting with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Last month during an MSNBC interview, he advocated the jailing of Obama’s obstructionist Republican opponents.
Belafonte’s legacy as an entertainer, though, is not easy to overshadow. “Calypso,” the 1956 record that launched an American craze for its namesake music, was the first U.S. LP to sell a million copies. His career since has been intertwined with other pillars of music (his 1962 “Midnight Special” album contains the first-ever recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan) and politics (he campaigned for and worked with President John F. Kennedy).
Belafonte also maintained a relationship with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s spending January traveling the country to speak about it.
His free keynote address Jan. 28 at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall concludes two weeks of events at the university celebrating King’s life and legacy. NU recently made Martin Luther King Day an official university holiday; Jan. 21 was its first.
Last week, Belafonte spoke about his activism, his music and his fond memories of King.
Q: You’re speaking about Dr. King at a number of universities and events this month. How did this tour come about now?
Belafonte: For the last many years, each time Dr. King’s birthday comes up or the anniversary of his death, there’s always a call by institutions and individuals to speak on the subject. Depending on the state of the union, I go and I speak and make commentary on what he might have observed and said if he’d been around today.
Q: Where has King’s legacy succeeded?
Belafonte: The real beauty and power of what the [Civil Rights] movement achieved — when you look back at the cunning and brutality and smarts and resources poured into trying to roll back the clock and end affirmative action and women’s rights and so many things — is that the opposition has miserably failed. Including trying to stop Obama getting re-elected. There’s the real tribute to what King achieved. Not from what we’ve taken but in stopping the opposition from defeating it.
Q: King is such a mythic figure. Tell me something sensory, something human about him.
Belafonte: What endeared him to me was the way in which he wrenched over the decisions he had to make. To watch him unable to sleep, develop all kinds of psychological disorders. He had a tic that plagued him constantly. It wasn’t a stutter. It was a nervous disorder that gave him kind of a — he couldn’t complete a sentence without a gasp for air. One day he seemed to no longer have that affliction.
Q: The last time I heard “Day O” it was a sample in Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot, 7 Foot.” What’s your opinion of your catalog getting sampled?
Belafonte: I love it. I’m not a protectionist. I was talking to [blues legend] Brownie McGhee once about purism in folk music. He said all songs are folk songs. He said, “Harry, the first song ever sung by a human being was ‘Ugh.’ ” Anybody can take my song. They can gladly have it, because it was never my song.
Q: Right, your version was based on several that came before.
Belafonte: “Day O” has a long history. Who knows where it came from. By the time it came to me it was full-blown. I had a happy time singing it.~.