Artists Are The True Gatekeepers Of Truth

Submitted by: Sylvia Vollenhoven

It is a sunny afternoon. I am playing in front of our table gram, a gramophone radio that looks a like a mini Voortrekker monument. I am just tall enough to reach the volume knob to turn it louder to hear the song. Day O, Day O, daylight come and he wanna go home…

We have no clue what the words mean but the voice is compelling and fun. It becomes part of our games and all the children sing it. We remember it forever. I can still hear the song and its cadences coming out of the radio.

It is a cold day in winter in the Sixties. I am at high school. My friend and I are rummaging through second-hand LP’s at a flea market stand on Cape Town’s Grand Parade. We find an album with a picture of Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba. We can’t believe our luck. We thought all Miriam Makeba’s music was banned.

We don’t understand all the lyrics but we play it over and over. Songs like Khawuleza, Malaika and Beware Verwoerd. The music speaks powerfully. We are discovering our political voice.

Half a lifetime later I am talking with Belafonte – United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, artist par excellence, human rights activist – about coming to South Africa. The voice that has woven itself into the fabric of my life calls out to someone for coffee.

Harry Belafonte received a national order from the President in Pretoria this week. He was awarded the Order of the Grand Companion of OR Tambo, for his contribution to a “better world for all, free of racism, poverty and exploitation”. He is also here to launch the Human Bondage (Slavery) Project at Input 2008.

“To participate in this conference in South Africa is a great reward for me at this time in my life.  There have been many Pan Africanists gathering before I was born and always there has been an attempt to put Africa at the table of debate, at the table of recognition, so the world can understand what happened to us. The conference will give us a chance to establish a basis to measure the truth about slavery and what it has done and continues to do in a way that we never have before.”

Belafonte was born in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh made his debut non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic, Al Jolson starred in the first feature length talking movie (the Jazz Singer) and Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party.

Now, 81 years later that active voice is still firm, like a trustworthy handshake. It even retains much of the sensual magic that has made Belafonte one of the most successful recording artists of all time. I ask him what drives him to travel the globe still raising his voice.

“Much of my resolve to do the work that I do as an artist is rooted deeply in my experience of poverty.  My mother was a woman who came from the Caribbean, the island of Jamaica. A combination of poverty and racism made her life in many instances quite unbearable.  As a child I watched her go through that and through the odds she instilled in me a belief, a sense of responsibility, that if I did nothing else in life I needed to commit myself to try to end racism and to end the plight of those who were trapped in the abyss of poverty.”

And in being true to that commitment he pulls no punches. He once called George Bush “the world’s greatest terrorist”. At another time he used an old slave metaphor to describe US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, as someone who has been permitted into the house of the master. Once after visiting Venezuela and declaring support for President Hugo Chavez, the King family withdrew a request for him to eulogise Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr Martin Luther King. He became “uninvited” after George Bush declared his intention to attend the funeral.

And being true to that commitment he is tireless. He was a close friend of Dr Martin Luther King even supporting the family in trying times. He brought together performers like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, was responsible for “We are the World.” He was key to the success of former President Nelson Mande’s first visit to the USA. The list goes on and on…

“I believe that it is a great, great blessing to have been called upon to play out my life in the world of art.  I think it is a noble place to be and one can do noble things from there. Those who influence artists, who are themselves artists, are really quite astounding. I think artists are the true gatekeepers of truth.  I don’t think any other force known to human evolution, known to social design, known to our spiritual existence, does for the world and for people, what it is that art does.”

His connections with South Africa go way back to a time when the apartheid regime forced many of our finest artists to flee and live in exile. He became close to many and a benefactor for some… Caiaphas Semenya, Letta Mbulu, Jonas Gangwa, Hugh Masakela and of course Miriam Makeba, to name but a few.

So, now that his link with South Africa has come full circle – from liberation struggle to democracy –  does he think we are living up to the ideals of… for one his great friend OR Tambo or Nelson Mandela.

It is quite evident that it is struggling to live up to the ideals of those great men and the ideas of its own sense of mission.  There is no question however that much has not happened and as a matter of fact SA sits in a very vulnerable place on many issues dealing with the demands and the needs and the hopes of the population.  I am particularly concerned about the youth of Africa and the kind and the level of unemployment, the level of discomfort that people are feeling.

 “But by and large I think that it has more than evidenced to the world that it can handle the responsibilities of being an independent state, a sovereign state, a state governed by Africans. That it can do those things that will help democracy thrive and endure. I think that SA is in a struggle but so is every country in the world. These are uncomfortable times in which our globe exists and South Africa has its path cut out for it.”

A voice of reason. The voice of controversy. Voice of the voiceless.

“Power, the quest of power in itself, usually resides at the doorstep of villainy.  Art and the power that it wields, it doesn’t seek to rule, it guides.  It doesn’t seek to divide, it seeks to unite. I have a moral suspicion of those who aspire to power and I am always looking at the kind of sad abuse that exists from places that control and have power and what it does to destroy humankind and all life for that matter.”

A beautiful bunch a ripe banana

Daylight come and he wanna go home

Hide thee deadly black tarantula

Daylight come and he wanna go home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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