Harry Belafonte Hoping To Lead A Change With New Festival

Harry Belafonte feels America has lost its moral compass, and culture can help gain it back.

The longtime activist and entertainer is hoping to lead a change with his festival, a racial and social justice event including performers and speakers like John Legend, Chris Rock, Common and Jesse Williams. The festival, debuting Oct. 1-2, is an extension of his social justice organization Sankofa.org, which Belafonte established in 2013.

Photo: Kathy Willens/AP, file
Speaking during a memorial tribute concert for folk icon Pete Seeger at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park in New York.

“I’ve lived long enough to see America lose its moral compass, and that is sad commentary. … I’ve felt that culture is a way in which we can ignite a consciousness about finding our moral compass,” the 89-year-old icon said in an interview Monday at his New York City home.

“Sankofa has become an attempt at trying to institutionalize cultural consciousness; let its exclusive trajectory be telling the truth about what’s going on in our world,” he said.

His inaugural festival will be held at Chattahoochee Hills Bouckaert Farm in Fairburn, Georgia, and will promote advocacy and awareness around urgent human rights issues. The lineup includes Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews, Public Enemy, Macklemore, Danny Glover, Dr. Cornel West, T.I. and Jussie Smollett.

Belafonte called the festival a “weekend retreat.”

“They’re going to sing about Ferguson, they will sing about brutality against black women, they will sing about our homophobia, they will sing about all of it, and have an evening instead of just shaking the booty and making happy sexual noises,” he said. “You know, can we say something with some substance and have people leaving the theater feeling, ‘Wow, that’s us!’“

“Many Rivers to Cross” will feature multiple stages and music being heard simultaneously. It will include a social justice village, a home for information about current issues, voter registration and a place where people can interact with activists and social leaders.

“We’re hoping to inform and enlighten and activate our ticket-goers so that when they leave the festival they have the opportunity to engage in their community,” said Gina Belafonte, the icon’s 54-year-old daughter who is producing the festival.

Aloe Blacc, Dianne Reeves, Estelle, Goapele, Michelle Alexander, Alice Smith and Sweet Honey in the Rock are also part of the lineup. Gina Belafonte, who has worked with her father for 20 years and is the co-director of Sankofa.org, said they’ve enjoyed giving artists a platform to speak about social injustice and race-related issues.

“I think because of the current climate in America around politics and some of the egregious violations of our law enforcement, there are more artists having the desire of participating but not having the outlet or platform in which they felt comfortable in presenting their own authentic feelings around the subjects,” she said, “so it’s been a very exciting opportunity to do outreach.”