Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Belafonte Honored by NAACP, Voices Need for ‘Radical Song’

Actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte accepted the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal on Friday night in New York City for outstanding achievement by an African American in 2012. Reprising a powerful speech he delivered at the NAACP Image Awards on February 1 in Los Angeles,  he urged Black America, especially its artists, to get involved in the ongoing fight for social and economic justice, particularly in the areas of gun and prison reform, and eradicating poverty.

Asking for leadership while calling out the names of his mentors, his inspirers, those he cited as his moral compass, “W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Bobby Kennedy, Ms. Constance Rice and perhaps for me, most of all, Paul Robeson,” he honored their names and others like them as “The men and women who spoke up to remedy the ills of the nation.”

He elaborated on the role the accomplished singer, actor, athlete, and activist Robeson played in inspiring his own work as an artist/activist.

“For me, Mr. Robeson, was the sparrow. He was an artist who made those of us in the arts understand the depth of that calling when he said, ‘Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.'”

Belafonte continued with his own inspiring message to America’s next freedom singers. “Never in the history of black robesonAmerica has there be such a harvest of truly gifted and powerfully celebrated artists. Yet, our nation hungers for their radical song. In the field of sports, our presence dominates. In the landscape of corporate power we have more of a presence of captains and leaders of industry than we have ever known. Yet, we suffer still from abject poverty and moral malnutrition.”

He suggested as a solution, that what’s missing in the struggle for justice today is radical thought. “America keeps that part of the discourse mute,” he claimed.

“I would make an appeal to the NAACP as the oldest institution in our quest for dignity and human rights that they stimulate more fully the concept and the need for radical thinking…Unless Black America raises its voice loud and clear…America will never become whole, and America will never become what it dreams to be, until we are truly free.”

Here is the speech in its entirety from today’s broadcast of Democracy Now.

Read more on Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson and singing for justice in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, , , ,

“Sister Rosa”

February 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist remembered for refusing to move to the back of the bus: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in the name of the desegregating public transit, was organized immediately following her arrest on December 1, 1955.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Parks was a student of non-violent protest and an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery, but her refusal to move on the bus that day was not part of any kind of group action or occupation—she held her seat on her own steam. And yet far from receiving any heroine’s awards, Parks paid the price for asserting her right to ride: In the immediate aftermath of the desegregation effort, she could no longer find work in Montgomery.  She and her husband Raymond moved north, eventually settling in Detroit where she worked the better part of her life as a secretary for US Representative John Conyers.

Parks would one day receive the highest honors in the land– from the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (Harry Belafonte will be honored this year), to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Gold Medal.  But if you dared to mess with the Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement and her legacy in a movie or a song, look out:  Parks was liable to slap you with a legal action or a boycott. “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians, the Neville Brothers, appears to have passed the test (though atypically for the Nevilles, it’s a rap track, taken from their 1989 album, Yellow Moon).

Parks passed in 2005, though matters of her personal estate have not been resolved and her detailed personal archive has not yet found a permanent home.  She would’ve been 100 this year.  For more information on Rosa Parks, visit the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.

Filed under: Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, , , , , , , ,

Happy Birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlkIt was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states will observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor in their own unique ways.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday”, which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster”, Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley who had been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, post-humously published The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, while it retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home a US federal holiday with the help of a song.  The tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana, on the shocking night John Lennon was killed (though that is a story better read in Scott-Heron’s memoir).

In King’s birthplace of Atlanta, Georgia,  the King Center, has a full schedule of events currently underway; the  celebrations and various symposiums are of course dedicated to the King’s teachings in non-violence. In San Francisco on January 21, there will be an all-day celebration of King’s life at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 11 a.m. — 5 p.m.  The City of Santa Monica also has a full weekend schedule of events beginning on Friday.  The photo above was of course taken during the historic “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington now in its 50th anniversary year. Had he lived, Dr. King would’ve been 84 today—and still dreaming.

Filed under: anti-war, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gil Scott-Heron, Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, MLK 84th birthday celebration, video, , , ,

Occupy Turns One

Hats off to West Coast artists Tom Morello, Jello Biafra and Michelle Shocked for joining Lee Ranaldo and Co.at New York’s Foley Square Park last Sunday for the kick off of the one year anniversary week of Occupy. Shocked performed “99 Ways to Loathe Your Lender,” sung to the tune of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Though Shocked discourages filming of her shows, I hope she won’t mind that I found a barely viewed clip of her performing it (she follows Biafra’s spoken word piece). The protest standard, “Which Side Are You On,” was performed as a singalong (it’s as close as any song the movement has to an official anthem).  Happy Anniversary Occupy, and thank you to the Occupiers and musicians who represent the 99 percent.

Filed under: anti-war, Civil Rights, Coal Mining Songs, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Occupy Wall Street, Punk, Songs for the Occupation, , , ,

Len Chandler and the March on Washington

photo of Len Chadler at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival by John Rudoff.

August 28 marks the 49th anniversary of the the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice on that day was Len Chandler, one of the voices in a trio that included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Chandler would march with Dr. King and travel through out the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, at risk to his own life. It was a now-vanished YouTube clip of Chandler’s inspirational performance of “Eyes on the Prize” that contributed to inspiring me to track him down and move forward with the writing of Keep on Pushing, my text that tracks the origins of freedom music, and its roots in African American struggle and triumph.

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music a bit by accident. Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene based on his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later when the gig was through, he returned to New York to find the folk thing in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs. “I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles, remembering when.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  “The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” Dylan wrote.

Chandler went on to record two albums for Columbia:  To Be a Man and The Loving People.  He continued to work as a topical songwriter, a peace and civil rights advocate, and as a songwriting teacher; his tour of Pacific Rim bases with Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Holly Near and Paul Mooney was documented in the Francine Parker film, FTA, a must-see for anyone interested in US history and anti-war efforts within military ranks. Catch a glimpse of Chandler at the end of this trailer for the film:

 Today, Chandler is largely retired from performing, but he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts.  I must say it was a privilege to meet one of the true unsung heroes of singing activism (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and to tell his story in Keep on Pushing which is where you will find more straight talk from Chandler, as well as my own perspectives on his contribution to civil rights history. If there is any chance that Harry Belafonte intends to organize the musical presentation for next year’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I hope he will consider issuing an invitation to Chandler for another chorus of “Eyes on the Prize”  (hold on).

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Folk, Freedom Now, , , , , , ,

In Memory of RFK, 6/6/68

From the text of Keep on Pushing, page 76.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was preparing his bid for the presidency, looking as if he would surely be the one chosen to lead his country through the deep water. Like Dr. King, he had grown in favor of withdrawing troops from Vietnam. From his seat on Capitol Hill, he had become a fierce advocate of civil rights and economic justice and the social programs to accompany those ends, supported by a progressive belief within his faith. Following his victory in the California primary election, on June 5, 1968, he too was shot down, two months after the loss of Dr. King.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?

So went the Dick Holler song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” it’s final verse devoted to “Bobby.” Written in response to the 1968 assassinations, it was first recorded by Dion DiMucci; Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Harry Belafonte were also moved to record the song, as were others as time and the years wore on.

In this clip, Smokey Robinson sings and talks a bit about what the song has meant to him, during a 2010 performance at the  White House.

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

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