Common Interview w/ Belafonte

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Calculate carefully. And in ponder it well, and remember this when you do— my two hands are mine to sell; they made your machines and they can stop them.

Paul Robeson

This month’s Ebony magazine is actually worth picking up. Alongside the routine incendiary pap that supposedly sells magazines– “Are there Really No Good Men or Are Women just too Picky” has been recycled yet again for this months installment–- stands an uncommonly fascinating conversation between octogenarian activist-artist Harry Belafonte and Chicago rapper cum Hollywood gadlfy, Common. Whoever thought of the idea of bringing these two performers together deserves a raise, even though it’s a straight knock-off of the popular Iconoclasts series on Bravo.

For the past decade, the only times I’ve even bothered to pay attention to Ebony and Essence have been when I’m in my mother’s bathroom back at home and I need something to read to pass the time, if you know what I mean. That might’ve been a little more information than you bargained for but the point remains: Ebony has needed to step it’s game up for a long, long time. Finally, this month at least, it delivers a thoroughly progressive, relevant, unapologetically courageous article. My one beef (and I have to have one for the sake of integrity, my own of course) is the title: Generations of Cool. Huh? A living, breathing document of the Black Liberation Struggle who’s dedicated his life to enlightened freedom-fighting (his low-blow disses of Colin and Condoleeza two years ago, not withstanding) and one of hip-hop’s (and I dare anyone to defy me on this) most gifted and socially aware constellations (his Gap foray notwithstanding) chop it up about Africa, integration, liberation, and the social responsibility of the artist, and the best they could come up with was Generations of Cool?

While I urge you to read the article yourself, I recognize there’s a good chance you won’t. So I’m going to share some of Belafonte’s quotes. Common was playing the interviewer for the most part, which was just as well. I’m interested in what people think about them, and, ultimately, about the role of the artist in society.  

Mr. Belafonte on the fall-out of  Integration:

“Nobody stuck around long enough for us to pass the torch. Every day I walked through the streets of Harlem I saw poverty and unemployed folk— my father was one of them, my mother was always hustling for a gig— but at the same time I saw Paul Robeson, I saw Dr. Du Bois, I saw Jackie Robinson, I saw all the great heroes, because segregation said that you may be a little better off if you make a buck, but you ain’t going to live no place else except in your Black Community…In the more recent past, all those who succeeded and who had acquired knowledge and information, they left and went to live in all the outposts and the suburbs. I’m guilty too, but I was on a mission to just break down segregation. I didn’t realize that beyond breaking down segregation I was also abandoning revolution.” One of the debates I’ve heard in more recent years is whether de-segregation was entirely beneficial to black people as a whole. What Belafonte is suggesting is that one of the benefits of segregation was that someone like him could have contact with the important figures of the race. The suggestion is that just by seeing these people one had a concept of one’s potential. At the same time, Belafonte’s remarks overlook the fact that the celebrity-obsessed culture we live in now makes it impossible for someone of the stature of Paul Robeson to live amongst working class people, much less walk the streets.‘Pac said it best when he described his own dilemma of being black and successful. He couldn’t live comfortably in the ‘hood because of the dangers borne out of animosity and general poverty its inhabitants experience. He couldn’t live comfortably in the suburbs because he would be isolated from his roots and targeted by hostile, reactionary forces. On Movements for Change:

In response to Common’s remark, “I still don’t know for sure if there are people out there who will make movement for us,” Belafonte said, “Don’t look for people out there who will make movement for you— because you’re it!…Every generation has got to be responsible for itself.”

Should I be surprised to hear someone of Common’s stature (and presumed intelligence) say something so pedestrian? If he, an artist with access to millions of people, doesn’t see himself as a force for the kind of change he wants to see in the world then where does that leave the rest of us? Is he just that naive? Or is he realistic about the extent of his own influence?

On Hip-Hop:

Mr. Belafonte has some particularly damning things to say about hip-hop that seem to echo the sentiment a lot of us are feeling, a view captured by Nas on Hip-Hop is Dead.

“Now the minute downtown saw a jingle in it, the minute they saw silver and gold, they stepped right in— co-opted it— and took it away from its origins and put it into the new slavery mode. They began to adorn those people in the service to the master….”I’ve always fought for the idea that hip-hop should never be abandoned, but you’ve got to reclaim it.”

On his mentors:

“Robeson came into my life and became my mentor. Dr. Du Bois came into my life and became my mentor. And Langston Huges and a lot of guys who were communists, who were Black, started to talk to me, and I just started to suck it up.” “Everybody I knew was doing it outside the box. Paul Robeson was outside the box. He was the biggest Black man in the universe. Dr. Du Bois was the biggest Black educator in the universe. Every one of them had one thing in common— they were outside the box. They were revolutionaries. They did not play any longer inside the house. Because inside the house all you get is the toilet. Everybody else gets the bedroom, the kitchen, the parlor. And from that moment when I said, ‘I saw your life, I saw what you did and I saw the price you paid,’ and that’s the way I’m going.”

A few weeks ago I went to D.C. for the weekend. While I was there I visited an old sage named Dr. Acklyn Lynch, a foremost African Studies scholar. When I walked in the door this seventyish man was listening to Dead Prez. He got me a glass of water turned on his tape-recorder and asked me what was going on in my life. For the next two hours we just talked. Part of the reason I was there to see him was because I wanted to ask him to write me a recommendation for graduate school. I was experiencing a protracted period of doubt about my future and somehow going back to get a PhD felt like the only alleviator. When I told Dr. Lynch about the projects I was working on and the work I was already doing, he told me not to waste my time with school. He was perfectly frank and perfectly sincere when he said that I’d already gotten whatever I could get out of the conventional educational system. Besides, he said, school wasn’t going to lead me to the answers I had. I was already doing the work. School would just take me off track and lead me down another primrose path. If I wanted, he could set me up with some of the independent intellectuals in his circle. I could talk to them about my ideas and get the feedback I needed. After our conversation, he wrote down four phone numbers and e-mail addresses and told me to let the people know he’d sent me. Then he walked me to the door and said, as I opened it, “You’re on the path, my brother.”

I haven’t thought about graduate school since then. I haven’t doubted my purpose or mission since then. The value of a truly wise mentor is immeasurable and it is what, I think, many of us are missing in our lives. We’re hungry for our elders in the struggle to give us their time and share with us their wisdom. That’s all. As a young African-American author I should have access to my forefathers and foremothers. People like Walter Mosely and Toni Morrison. We should be able to communicate with them because we are them, because we’re carrying on the same struggle that they fought. It’s not enough that we can read their books and watch their movies. We should be able to break bread with them, learn from them, gain a firmer grasp of courage and commitment through them. Why doesn’t this happen more often? Why must so many of us be forced to spend so many years bumping around in the dark when there are people out here who can turn on the lights. Whose responsibility is this? Ours? Theirs? How can we ensure that more conversations like Commons with Belafonte take place?  


the HNIC Report