Harry Belafonte on Common and John Legend’s “Glory”

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Harry Belafonte on “Glory” for a New York Times feature on “The African-American Art Shaping the 21st Century.”

What interested you about “Glory,” that collaboration between John Legend and Common?There’s a consciousness that [John Legend and Common] brought to the material, which I think was a bit unusual among high-profile pop artists — to do things that were dealing with social recall and definition. “Glory” was a kind of contemporary black — not protest, but black anthem, I guess is the best word.

I grew up in a time when music that came from the black voice was filled with reflections that deeply represented the black sense of life in America. The [Harlem] Renaissance gave us people like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday — a host of artists that became huge sang to the plight of black people and the black experience. And I thought that was a rich gift to American culture.

And you see “Glory” as a kind of harkening to that?Yes. It’s a kind of black homage to the best that’s in us.

What do you like about Bryan Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy,” the story of his fight to appeal the sentence of a man convicted of murder?I would identify him as a notator of history. What appeals to me about “Just Mercy” is that it relates to the human condition. He and a lot of the young men and women I’ve dealt with [as an activist] are moved by the sense of social responsibility and consciousness.

I’m thinking [of people like] Isabel Wilkerson, [who wrote] “The Warmth of Other Suns” [2010, about the migration of blacks from the South]. And James McBride, who wrote “The Good Lord Bird” [2013], fiction about a young black kid traveling with [the abolitionist] John Brown. That to me was quite offbeat and unique and rewarding. [These three authors] are calling upon history to reflect on it.

So they are picking up the baton from an earlier generation in terms of consciousness and activism.Look, black culture has always reflected the hopes and the aspirations of black people. Take a great artist like my favorite of all, Huddie Ledbetter — Lead Belly. What I love about Lead Belly was his rawness, his directness. And I think that a lot of artists today are beginning to reflect social preoccupation. For a long time, we were just about the characters of pop culture. But now we’re coming back to looking at a deeper resonance.

Interview by Eric V. Copage

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