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Belafonte, Usher talk pop culture and activism

Published:Tuesday | October 27, 2015 | 12:00 AMShereita Grizzle
Harry Belafonte

Civil rights activist Harry Belafonte made headlines last weekend following discussions he had with American R&B artiste Usher about popular culture and activism.

Last Friday evening, scores of young people turned up at the Kaufmann Concert Hall in New York City to listen to both men speak on issues surrounding the need to be involved in activism. The discussion, under the theme 'Breaking the Chains of Social Injustice', was moderated by former CNN anchorwoman Soledad O'Brien.

Belafonte, 88, suffered a seizure the evening before but was well enough to engage the audience in a riveting discussion, according to online sources. The entertainer charged his fellow musicians to remember that they have a social responsibility, a message he has been preaching for several years and which led to a falling out between himself and hip-hop mogul Jay Z.

Belafonte and Jay Z have been at loggerheads since 2012 when Belafonte said that one of the great abuses of modern times is having high-profile artistes and powerful celebrities who have turned their back on social responsibility, citing Jay Z and his wife, BeyoncÈ, as examples.

Jay Z responded to Belafonte's reasoning in 2013 by stating that his presence as an artiste-entertainer was better felt in charity.

It is also widely believed that Jay Z took a hit at Belafonte in one of his songs, where he said, "Mr Day-O, major fail."


gatekeepers of truth


However, on Friday, the two seemed to have put their differences aside as Jay Z was a member of the audience at the discussion. It was also reported that the two had been engaged in conversations backstage before the discussion started.

Belafonte has been critical of popular artistes for not doing enough to address social injustice. "Artists are the gatekeepers of truth," he said during the discussion on Friday, while heaping praises on director Steve McQueen for the film 12 Years a Slave. He said the film functions as a strong rebuttal to those who would whitewash slavery in history books.

Usher spoke about the need to vote and the need for education. He shrugged off the term "activist" to describe himself, preferring to reserve it for people like Belafonte, who fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s and has been a prominent voice demanding social justice for more than half a century. Coining a term for himself, the singer described himself as an "actionist" and said he hoped his new video would move people to get involved in various organisations like Belafonte's group, Sankofa.