Songs Against the Machine: A great entertainer and activist reflects on a lifetime of hopeful struggle.
Thursday, June 17, 2004
I thought at this time in my life, I would be somewhere in the Caribbean on the beach, sipping a rum, reflecting on the good deeds that have transpired in a lifetime. But I find that no such luxury has afforded itself to me. I cannot sit on a beach because with each motion of a wave in the surf, I hear the voices of many who do not have such opportunity.
I always travel and try to travel with anonymity. To just take a moment to reflect and breathe and to think about where I’ve been and where I have to go. And I go to these way-out places that I’ve never been before, and I try to blend in to the place I’m visiting.
On a recent visit to such a place, I walked into a tiny village that had a record store. And the music was blaring through the speakers, and I walked into the store, hoping to find the music of the indigenous, to find the solitude that might be inspiring, to translate it, carry its melody and its thoughts to millions who may never have heard it.
As I leafed through the bins looking at records, I was quite taken with how many were of American artists. They were the most popular. And I began to look through the bins, name after name after name, and I became aware of the absence of one.
I was a little—I was struck really with some wonderment as
to why this person was not in the bins. In a more plentiful
way. And I walked up to the woman who was the manager and I
said to her, “Excuse me, Miss, but do you have any records by
Harry Belafonte?” and she looked at me a moment and then she
said “Who?” And I said.
She said, “You know, we have no records here by him. But, you know, a lot of people come in off the Port looking for music and they ask quite often for that man. But, you know, I think he long time dead!” Beyond the humility that such an utterance brings—it also made me ponder.
I recently took a group of men and women from California and other parts of the United States to Africa to visit with the Ethiopian farmers, to take a look at what was happening to them, and to try to understand that they sing the same songs we do, and in many ways even more passionately.
They are songs of constant need—their needs are great—and I’ve come to understand that to care for freedom and pay for it is a never-ending job.
Those who are the villains among us do their work 24 hours
a day. They are constant in their need to oppress, in their
need to cheat, in their need to steal, in their need to rob us
of our dignity. Why they are so possessed, greater minds than
mine have tried to understand it. I am of the belief, however,
that if we stay the course, be constant in our defense of
democracy, and never compromise, and refuse to negotiate with
the enemy, we will prevail.
Early on, I was introduced to a song in my youth when I was aspiring to find my place in the world as an artist. I remember the song said, “Calculate carefully and ponder it well, and remember this when you do: my two hands are mine to sell to the machine, and they can stop it, too.”
It is in the stopping of the machine that we seem to
falter. For some reason we have not understood clearly what
the blueprint was when we recall and think about what happened
in the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement and the
Women’s Movement in its early manifestations. The one thing
that all those movements had in common was that they stopped
the machine. And until we stop the machines, and in the way in
which they hungrily pursue profit, until we tell them, “You
will not turn another moment of profit until you deal with our
spiritual bankruptcy as a nation, until you find a new codes
of honor in which to deal with the world, we will not tolerate
any longer your banks, your institutions; we’ll no longer
tolerate your military interventions and your military
impositions. And we are ready to put our bodies and our lives
on the line to do that.”
It was with Rosa Parks and what happened in Montgomery, Alabama, and the fact that people picketed and refused to let the machine work easily, that we found our earliest victories. And we escalated our movement. And as we escalated our targets, we found more and more of those who sat in the places of power troubled by the fact that we had the power to disrupt their machines and to stop them.
And I think what we must do is to use our might and our powers strategically to make sure that nothing functions, nothing runs, nothing works until we find a way to end poverty, and we find a way to end racism, until we come to the table and agree to do that.
There, in fact, is my dilemma on what to say here this evening. Certainly we should all be applauded for what we do. They’re honorable people, we say. We care about our world and our planet. Everything we’ve done, and the other honorees who are honored here this evening, demonstrates that. But we have missed an important strategic component.
As I go around the world, which I do with great consistency, when I go to Somalia and to Rwanda and Kenya, when I go to the oppressed places in Eastern Europe and in Latin America and Central America, I’m aware how vast America’s villainy extends itself. Because I see the faces of the wretched millions who make up poverty globally, who are languishing from HIV-AIDS, hunger, and malnutrition. Always I look at what causes this, and nothing is clear to us as is our military industrial complex, led by the United States of America.
We have got to bring corporate America to its knees. Not in defeat, but perhaps in prayer. To understand that we can come together and make a world that is filled with people who are nourished, who can read and write, and debate and have exchange and dialogue. And there is a place in which great profits can be earned.
After all, people who can read and write, the people who are healthy, are people who consume. In the consumption, we can find that we have great markets everywhere and that we would sell them food that was not grown by Folger’s and Maxwell House, but grown by people who worry about the organic earth, and the truth and the beauty of our mountains and rivers, and what we put into our bodies.
There sits the great profit that will be earned in the 21st
century. And the institutions of capitalism know that they can
no longer continue to do business unless they do business with
the poor and disenfranchised.
In a few days, I will go to the Middle East. I go as a servant of the United Nations, where I have been working for the last 17 years, and it’s perhaps the reason that lady in the Caribbean thinks I’m long time dead.
One of the reasons that most people don’t know whether I work or not is because of the instruments of communication in America. Once they shut down on you, most people don’t know where you are. Unless they happen to read some brief report about something we may have done.
I’m going to these places. I have to tell you that most of the places that I go to in the world are looking more like San Francisco and the Bay Area every day. They are people—in Germany, in France, in Ireland, England and Poland, many places where I go—whose voices are being heard mightily in their rebellion against the American policy.
Because the policies of oppression are speaking out and speaking out loudly. They’re transforming their government. They’re changing their leaders in Spain and Brazil and Argentina and Nicaragua, in Venezuela, in many places, and we must and can do the same here.
We must just understand that the sacrifice we have yet to make is demanded of us. Somebody is going to have to, in cleaning up the air, talk about not driving anymore. Somebody, in trying to get a better price for food, is going to have to say that we just can’t keep running after the fast food market. Somebody is going to have to make a sacrifice. Somebody is going to have to put their body in front of the machine. Somebody is going to have to die.
It’s the way things are. It’s the way things have been. And we, in our efforts to try to change and make a better world, will have to pay a price. Truth is—we must ask ourselves, are we willing to go all the way? Ask yourself if you are truly willing to die for what you believe, and you might come up with an answer that will explain to you why we haven’t quite moved as far ahead as we should be moving.
What are we prepared to give? And should it be any less than those who have gone before us?
A lot of people in the world are dying, children in particular. Nothing is certain about the lives that are lost among the Iraqis, among the Afghanistan people. Very little is said about the women and the children. We say it among ourselves, we sit as better informed. But we do not have a major part of the world that understands what it is that we understand.
And we have got to let the world know this. And the places that I will go, it will be important to let them know that we, in America, are made up of different people other than the ones they have come to know who carry guns and bombs and lies and deceit. That there are honorable people here making honorable efforts to make a difference in the world in which we live.
And to that extent, I thank Global Exchange for being here and doing what it is you do and to give me an opportunity to battle on about the world in which we live. Thank you so very, very much.
Actor, singer, activist and humanitarian Harry Belafonte delivered this address as he received the 2004 Human Rights Award from Global Exchange in San Francisco on June 10. A full transcript of this speech can be found at DemocracyNow.org .