In commemoration of Harry Belafonte’s upcoming 90th birthday on March 1, the musician and civil rights icon’s legacy will be compiled into a special album titled When Colors Come Together... The Legacy of Harry Belafonte A retrospective of works from Belafonte between 1956 and 1972, the compilation album will include earlier recordings as well as on new song. But getting to the destination of celebrating his own legacy was a bit difficult at first, according to his son, David Belafonte. Affectionately referring to his father by his first name — since the two have both a familial and business relationship —David recalls shaping the mission of the album. Because of course, the older Mr. Belafonte is all about the mission.
“Harry’s overall tendency when it comes to being celebrated, tends to be somewhat on the reluctant side,” David said. “Whether it is a birthday or a specific project, he has always tended to shy away from the spotlight when it came to celebrating himself. It was usually in homage to whatever the mission, in any given instance might be.”
For When Colors Come Together... The Legacy of Harry Belafonte, the dual mission became presenting Belafonte’s impressive artistry while putting forth hope in the next generation. Brought to life by the title track, “When Colors Come Together (Our Island in the Sun)” sung by a multicultural children’s choir, is a reimagining of the title track from Belafonte’s 1957 film Island in the Sun. The message promotes diversity and encourages children to be the change the world wants to see. In support of the idea that no one is born discriminatory of race, David created a video entitled “First Graders on Skin Color.” A series of sit-down interviews with children, the compelling clip features rather candid evidence.
BET.com spoke with David Belafonte about When Colors Come Together... The Legacy of Harry Belafonte and “First Graders on Skin Color” and the mission of his father’s latest project.
Take me back through your decision to do this compilation album for your father’s legacy.
Well, just, in the macro, I worked with, and I’ll, for the purposes of this discussion, call him Harry as I tend to because I’ve worked with him professionally for so long. Spent the better part of my professional life working with and for him, and not in that order. It started out the other way around, for him and then with him, as I got older. Particularly during the years when we were touring a lot. Busy creating content, recording. Doing quite a bit of work on those fronts. And then we he retired from actively performing, paths kind of went a different way and, although I’m still in the business, there wasn’t much Harry was doing on the content creation side. Then, back to last summer, I got a call from Sony Legacy, specifically John Jackson, with keen interest on doing something in observance of Harry’s 90th birthday. Clearly considered a significant milestone by all. And, on the heels of that discussion, we wound up meeting to discuss proposed ideas and a myriad of things were looked at inclusive of Harry recording some new content on top of a recompilation of specific songs from his catalog.
“When Colors Come Together” is the star of this conversation. How much of a hand did your father have in creating this track with these children?
Well, let’s start with the root, if you look at the root of it, he very much had a hand in it. By definition, the song itself spawned from his legacy, his career and his writing efforts and collaborations on the original piece. So i would say his contribution, hands on, in terms of the actual production of the track, the rewriting of the lyrics. That’s sort of day-to-day involvement was minimal, but, but ever-present in ever-driving the initiative, the attention to detail and the aspirations for the piece. He was very much involved by setting a bar of excellence and a requirement for this thing to be the best that it could be.
What was his reaction to hearing the finished product of “When Colors Come Together”?
Well, he was quite taken. As a concept, he had to cogitate on it a little bit and kind of put it in the context of his tastes, his sensibilities. I think, you know, if you tend to cover the world of the arts, I think you’re well aware that there is always this bizarre, kind of divine dissatisfaction with everything that artists do when it comes to their work. You know there’s always, you know, that’s great, that’s all nice, that’s wonderful, but it could always be better and be more. So I think all things considered, it got the approval for sure. I’m sure that it was a little bit different for him to kind of sit sidecar to it, but the short answer is I think he very much not only likes the song, but appreciates the hopes and aspirations in the message.
This song is about, you know, the power of diversity. So when these children were chosen to perform this song, talk to me about the conversation that you had with these kids about the importance of this song and the importance of Harry Belafonte?
Well the discussions were several. There were specifically the kids that performed on the piece and then there are the children that I think are the ones that really are best served by the message in it. The really little ones that had nothing to do with the creation or the performance of the song, are the ones that you hope to capture with this. They haven’t really formulated an opinion much in the way of racism, diversity, so many of these things that we learn along our journey through life. We’re not born with it, we didn’t come into the world with it. The kids that performed on the song had to be of an age where they had enough command of their instrument, discipline to come in and put a full day’s work in, and to be able to perform the piece. So for them, it was definitely a bit more of an intellectual discussion. But not to overthink it; the whole idea behind the song was to be performed by kids for kids. So the lyrics were written accordingly, and in the production choices were made with that involved. Yes, adults definitely stand to benefit and learn from the message and enjoy the song, but for these kids, you kind of have to deliver the task, deliver the message, without over-intellectualizing it. In as much as you don’t need to deeply understand the laws of centrifugal force to ride a bicycle. You want to get on that bike, you want to have fun, you want to understand what it means without getting into a deep, deep philosophical explanation.
Why do you think music is a good medium for children to kind of have these conversations or to be fed these positive messages? What is special about music being the conduit?
I think most that appreciate music would agree that it is so trans-gender, trans-age, trans-cultural when it comes to what music does at it’s most primal level, the way it moves us. You look at little ones that don’t even have a command of whatever their language is, [they] are moved by music. There is a reality in the mathematics of music. In the emotional impact that it has at a primal level, that I think is, part and parcel, to why music has historically been just such a wonderful tool. Going back to the days of whoever coined the phrase that “music soothes the savage beast,” something happens to the human being when they experience music of a certain nature. You see it in film, you see it in popular culture, you see it in concerts. It can drive emotion without much intellectual involvement. Then you get to the lyrical content, different discussion. Sometimes lyrics are literal, sometimes you are being cryptic, sometimes it’s metaphor. Whatever it is, that engages another sensibility. But I think for these particular kids, music in general is something that is, what’s the cliché? It’s a universal language, you know, which I think is probably the simplest answer to your question. That it just strikes human chords that you cannot deny.
Let's get to this video of these children. It opens by saying that “this video is supporting our case.” Tell me what case this video supports.
I have always maintained, and certainly Harry concurs, that we are not born with a human gene that predisposes us to judge color, race. Many of the things that are, are extremely problematic in this life. They are peculiar lessons that are learned and acquired along the way. And I’ve said ad nauseam, it is an acquired disease that seems to spread like a cancer. Any sane person, in my opinion, can’t justify or explain it in terms of, of, a predisposition that one is less intelligent or all of the ways that racism or the expression of racism find their way into daily life. So for these kids, the mission and the idea was to showcase the fact that you don’t pop out of the womb with this in your DNA. So we wanted to catch these kids at an age where, as I like to say, they’re still “puppies.” They have not morphed into cats yet. And, and, it was interesting sharing this with Harry, because when I showed Harry the video, Harry, who’s always looking for the deeper exploration, he said to me, "You know you gotta get deeper with these kids." [laughs]. And I said well, “Well, dad, the point is, you can’t get deeper without plugging into their brains what it is you want to get deeper about.” So the purpose of that video was to set these kids up with no preconceived notion of what the discussion was going to be. All of those interviews, they came in clueless as to what the questions were going to be. And I tried to pose those questions in a way that would at least highlight, out of all those kind of questions, all the possible answers, no one ever said, “I don’t like that person because their darker than me or their lighter than me or they look different.”
In a lot of ways, older people are set in their ways and children are more malleable when it comes to almost everything. But what about those children who are being raised in hateful environments. Is there also hope for them too?
Well, I think there’s hope for anybody who’s given a chance to at least get an honest perspective and develop an honest opinion. Which I think is so much a part of the problem. None of us, I don’t think in general, know what to believe anymore. It used to be, at least, because of the limits of technology. I know when I was growing up it had to be a reasonably deep study in certain things, because little snippets and sound bites didn’t really exist. You didn’t have the, the attention span and access to the type of wide but shallow information base that exists now. And you don’t know what your reading or what your seeing, so, I would hasten to hope that it’s never too late for anybody if they’re open-minded and you catch them in a forum where people are willing to listen and hear and share and have interactions.
It’s been 60 years since Island in the Sun. How has the conversation shifted and where do you think the conversation needs to go with the help of what works, like “When Colors Come Together”?
Well, I will say this. With the recent turn of events in terms of the presidential election, I think if there’s any upside at all to this new state of affairs, it's that we got an express ride to a place that would have perhaps taken 50 years to get to. In a slow uphill climb, had events not gone the way they went in terms of really bringing out into the open a deep propensity for people to judge based upon cultural and racial difference. And one would hope that something as simple as this song perhaps goes and perhaps it would inspire another and another and get a dialogue going. You know, people are like penguins. I saw a documentary not too long ago on penguins. You know millions flock to the edge of the iceberg and they all hesitate until one jumps or falls in. And then they all fall off until one hesitates and then they all freeze, right? So maybe this will be the first penguin to go into the water and then everybody will follow.
(Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)