October 13, 2016
So Much More Than Music
The Many Rivers to Cross Festival that took place two weeks ago has been called a “Woodstock” for the social and racial justice movement. Acts like Tip “T.I.” Harris, Santana, Common, Dave Matthews, Macklemore, and Alice Smith drew thousands to an 8,000-acre horse farm southwest of Atlanta for two days of art, activism, and music.
But Many Rivers was about much more than big-time headliners. There was a social justice “village” where more than 40 local and national organizations talked to concertgoers about their missions and goals. There were small-group discussions among artists and activists about subjects like climate change, mass incarceration, racism, and the meaning of leadership.
And we were there! Scooping ice cream, registering voters, collecting voter pledge cards, encouraging people to sign the petition to restore the VRA, and getting caught up in the spirit of joy and determination that touched everyone who attended and performed.
“Mr. B Asked Me”
When asked why they had come to Many Rivers, every single artist and activist gave the same answer: “Mr. B asked me.” CNN commentator, activist, author, and attorney Van Jones told us that “if [Mr. B] asks you to eat your Wheaties or do jumping jacks, or whatever, you gotta say yes!” And who is Mr. B? Harry Belafonte.
Now 89, Belafonte has won a Tony, an Emmy, a few Grammys (including one for lifetime achievement), a BET Humanitarian Award, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and that’s just the start of a long list of awards and honors for the singer and actor. He was also the first recording artist in history to sell a million copies of a single album, way back in 1956.
Which Came First: Artist or Activist?
But as those humanitarian awards attest, Belafonte’s legacy extends well beyond his artistic achievements. His work in the civil rights movement began in the ‘50s. He befriended Martin Luther King, Jr., and used his own resources to support the civil rights leader, his family, and his crucial work. He regularly bankrolled other efforts during that time, like the Freedom Rides. His social justice work continued beyond the ‘60s and included fighting apartheid in South Africa and organizing the “We Are the World” effort in the ‘80s. While many of his fans may consider him an artist who turned to activism, Belafonte thinks of himself as an activist who became an artist. “You become an activist the day you’re born,” he has said, “when you’re a person of color born into poverty in America.”
Using Art To Address Real Issues
Harry Belafonte founded Sankofa.org in 2013. Sankofa is a Ghanaian symbol meaning “You must reach back to reclaim that which is lost in order to move forward.” Sankofa.org’s mission is to help and encourage artists to use their platform to address issues like mass incarceration and voting rights. The Many Rivers to Cross Festival was the direct result of this effort to enlist artists’ support for the fight for justice and equality.
So this festival was many things—an all-star, all-day-and-night music marathon, a remarkable mixing of activists from all over the country, an endless spectacle of good food, good energy, and good times—but ultimately it was more than anything a passing of the torch. Harry Belafonte was there as a living link to the struggles and successes of the past (he even performed on stage for the first time in twelve years, and as he mused, perhaps the last time).
When Belafonte met Martin Luther King Jr., he said that King “wanted much more than money. He wanted my life." Mr. B had a similar ask of artists and attendees at Many Rivers to Cross: he called upon those gathered to dedicate their lives to moving forward in the spirit of Sankofa.
“This Generation of People is Fearless”
That’s where young activists like Umi Selah, cofounder of the Dream Defenders, and Laura Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York come in.
Selah said that the best thing about Many Rivers was the chance to truly have meaningful conversations. “In this country,” he said, “for all its openness, for all its opportunity, there is a lack of genuine discourse.” Linda Sarsour agreed. She told us that Many Rivers was one of the rare and so increasingly necessary “spaces that bring all these brilliant minds together.”
Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said that events like Many Rivers help us “see the humanity in one another through music and dance and poetry and art so critical to building healthy movements.” “This generation of young people is really fearless,” Sarsour told us, but we need artists to join the struggle because “culture is what wakes people up.”
Harry Belafonte dedicated his life to progress and justice. It’s now up to the next generation — that’s us! — to wake up and take a stand.
What’s Better Than Hope?
When asked, in the light of the crowds and the sun and the music and the conversations, if he felt hopeful, Van Jones said that talk of being hopeful or optimistic missed the point. “I feel determined…It’s about having the will to fight.” He went on, “As long as you do that, there’s a chance for victory.” If you don’t, then there’s only “the certainty of defeat.”
The idea of defeat was not on anybody’s mind at Many Rivers. The energized crowds, and the determined performers and activists together conjured a future of real and meaningful change, and of inevitable victory.
The only thing we all need to do is keep fighting for it.
Here’s a good place to start: sign the petition to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and restore the right for everyone to vote and make their voice heard!
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