Here’s How Harry Belafonte is Using Art to Fight Injustice

Photo by: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx 1/15/16 Harry Belafonte at the premiere of "Vinyl". (NYC)

Something happened in February of 2012 that rocked the world and pained the Black community to its core. That “something” was the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old kid, wearing a hoodie and walking from the local store near his father’s Florida home, with skittles and an iced tea in his hand.

We were stung again when his killer was not convicted. Outrage poured onto the streets, and today we are still grieving from the loss, and loss of the too-many others who came after: Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tyre King, Alfred Olango. Sadly, the list goes on.

It is from this social unrest that iconic entertainer and activist, Harry Belafonte, founded Sankofa, a social justice organization and platform where influential artists and grassroots leaders work collaboratively to speak out against human rights abuses.

“The [organization’s name] was picked by a young man named Darren ‘Bo’ Taylor who was one of the leaders of the Crips culture in California,” Mr. Belafonte told “As a [former] gang leader, he was doing a lot to try and bring peace to the community. Before he died of cancer, we put into motion the idea of putting together an organization that would bring artist together where they could get the most up-to-date information on what’s going on around the country and what a lot of these artists could be doing to use their personal platform to speak and/or perform at events.”

Established in 2013, Sankofa launched the Many Rivers To Cross Festival, the largest multi-generational music and arts festival dedicated to progressive social change.

Produced by Mr. Belafonte and his daughter Gina, the two-day affair is filled with music performances and opportunities for community organizers, activists and thought leaders from across the country to collaborate and use their platforms to “amplify ideas and solutions to advance issues around voting rights, mass incarceration and community and police relations.”

John Legend, T.I., Common, Jussie Smollett, Aloe Blacc, and Jesse Williams are among the list of artists to hit the stage and also take part in the various workshops that will be offered during the event this weekend.

Along with dynamic musical performances, the festival’s Social Justice Village will include a “Mural City,” paintings that will stretch more than 100 yards to showcase the history of the struggle for human rights from visual art creators such as Brandan “Bmike” Odums, Hebru Brantley and Douglas Miles.

Known for publicly holding entertainers accountable for planting seeds back into the community (roll playback to when he called out Bey and Jay), Mr. Belafonte stated that the artists involved will present material with relevance to the cause of justice or the miscarriage of justice.

Chuck D, of the iconic rap group Public Enemy, has always carried the message that art and activism go hand-in-hand. Affectionately referring to Mr. Belafonte as Mr. B, explained the activist taught him that artist have a responsibility and an accountability to deliver truth.

“Historically artists have come from the same communities that face issues [of police antagonism, low-income and mass incarceration],” he said during a conference call about the event. “Art permeates society and earth. While government and some laws- especially unfair laws- have limited human beings, art frees us and it transcends us.“

This year has seen an abundance of musical artists, and even athletes and actors, take a stand against blatant mistreatment of African-Americans. During the ESPY awards, the world had no choice but to pay attention to the truth that LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul brought to center stage following the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Recently, Colin Kaepernick has had his life threatened over his refusal to stand for the national anthem, citing: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”

Brandon Marshall has lost endorsements due to his decision to follow Kaepernick’s path.

Rap artists such as T.I., Common, DJ Quik, and others have released music detailing the strife the Black community has experienced. Visual depictions of police gunning down 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a park were reenacted in a heart-wrenching video by Pusha T and Quan to further indict the aggressive force used by officers.

Artists, of all forms, are often seen as gateways to the truth. From strokes of paint that illustrate societal ills and triumphs, to intricate lyricism that captures ears with verses that dissect financial inequities, impoverished neighborhoods and police brutality, the voice of a creator is felt and needed.

“Artists linking up with real people who do real things to redefine our society, this is necessary,” Chuck D affirmed. “Artist have the biggest voice when led with truth. If we have the light on us, why not make the change?”

Many Rivers To Cross Festival takes place October 1 and 2 at Bouckaert Farm in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, just south of Atlanta, which birthed the Civil Rights Movement.

Get more information about the festival here.

LaToya “Toi” Cross is the Senior Editor/ Entertainment and Culture for EBONY, and You can catch this laughing creative sharing work, art and capturing life on her iPhone 6 via her handle @ToizStory on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. 


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