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On 'Things Fall Apart,' The Roots Deepened Hip-Hop
'Things Fall Apart' is not the Roots' masterpiece, but rather the beginning of them making masterpieces
We joke about it — there's that "J. Cole went platinum with no features" meme—but some of rap's overachievers end up doing just that. The Roots were perhaps one of the first acts in hip-hop history where maybe it wasn't immediately clear what the song was about. And while rap had always been built on borrowing and homage and one-upping, all sorts of open-source tools and watching a chant or catchphrase evolve into something else in real time, the Philadelphia group felt like its first meta commentators, deconstructing the medium as a whole and its tropes within their work itself. Lord knows they didn’t condescend to their peers (which matters when your lead vocalist is named Black Thought), though they occasionally indulged their bratty side (see the 1996 "rap video manual" "What They Do").
But just by existing, the Roots are often viewed as a fount of respectability politics: "They're rappers who play real instruments!" you’ve surely overheard one exasperated white rock fan say to another. Actually, let's zoom out entirely. How they're really viewed in 2019 is as Jimmy Fallon's house band and their elastic ability to perform on any guest's song, no matter the genre, possibly diminishes their artistic identity rather than augmenting it. Despite the fact the Roots tie Jay-Z as rap’s most consistent album artists for 20 years now, they’re rarely part of The Conversation.
You could say people so take the Roots' greatness for granted that whatever amazing thing they're currently saying or doing exists in a different universe than the one engaging luminaries from Drake to Nicki Minaj to Future to Juice WRLD. Or you could say they aren’t considered great at all. Black Thought is often referred to as an "MC's MC," which by definition means he’s undervalued by the audience. No one doubts Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson is a world-class drummer, but he's treated more as the Dave Grohl of rap, a genial everydude who’s friends with everybody and checks in with a predictable new album every few years. Sure, but only if greatness in itself is boringly predictable.
Things Fall Apart, which just turned 20, is rightfully celebrated as a groundbreaking collection of music; it courted real sales, and had a real hit. "You Got Me," a Jill Scott co-write that Erykah Badu's hook curled around like smoke, won a real GRAMMY in 1999. And 2002's expansive, almost psychedelically varied follow-up, Phrenology, continued the hit streak with "The Seed 2.0," though it was a larger staple of alt-rock stations' playlists than rap ones. And then quietly, respectfully, their next six studio albums were damned with strong reviews and consistent sales in the five-to-six digits without threatening radio or year-end lists ever again. This was particularly unjust for the incredible hot streak of Game Theory, Rising Down, and How I Got Over from 2006 to 2010, but the quality of The Tipping Point, undun, and …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is also taken for granted.
Things Fall Apart is not the Roots' masterpiece, but rather the beginning of them making masterpieces. Its unforgettable cover art aside, with two terrified black people fleeing white police on foot, most of the album's depth is musical. Before Genius existed, Questlove was happy to fill the Roots' CD booklets with footnotes to help any listener place the cymbal-heavy opener "Table of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)" as a tribute to the "sloppy tambourine" of Marley Marl and "horrible mixing" of the Jungle Brothers. The drums on "Step Into the Realm" keep fading out as an homage to the breaks our heroes had to loop as kids from the ends of other songs where the only isolated drum sounds they could grab would fade out. The backing track of "Without a Doubt" is built entirely from a sample of their fellow hometown hero Schoolly-D.
Old-school rap was the foundation of Things Fall Apart, down to the back-and-forth mic-trading between Black Thought and Mos Def on "Double Trouble." But the hyper-time drum-and-bass that Questlove lays under the final chorus of "You Got Me," J Dilla's creaky deep-crate jazz on "Dynamite!" and the Jazzyfatnastees' hocketing vocals on "The Next Movement" were all expanding the sonic palates of millennial rap fans. The group embraced their progressivism visually, too, building on the subversive "What They Do" with two more Charles Stone III-directed videos: "You Got Me" remixed Radiohead's infamously open-ended "Just" clip, while the mini visual marvels of “The Next Movement,” rival anything Spike Jonze directed in the '90s.
The album cover and title of the Roots' third album were perhaps better suited to their darker later work, which became crucially political, but at least it established an urgency for the group, one they deserve to get back. Because the true theme song of Things Fall Apart is the centerpiece "Act Too (The Love of My Life)," whose titular inamorata is hip-hop itself, and that song's own music sounded like a successor to "The Cosby Show" theme, which at one time was another example of Philly pride. Making an album about how much you love what you do doesn’t sound like a radical concept, necessarily. But it’s an uplifting one, and when it busts open the doors that permit you to do so much more of it, well, that’s the beginning of a revolution, no?
On September 27, Things Fall Apart will be reissued in a 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition in different formats. The standard 3xLP gatefold edition with a new full disc of bonus tracks and a 24-page booklet featuring rare photos and new essays from Black Thought and Questlove (along with new liner notes from Questlove), as well as a Collector's Edition on clear vinyl with a die-cut slipcase.
Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban)
8 Exciting Sets From The 2023 Roots Picnic: Usher, Lil Uzi Vert, Lauryn Hill & More
From a surprise reunion of the Fugees, to a special appearance by Eve and Jazmine Sullivan, the 2023 Roots Picnic brought heat and hype across multiple stages. Read on for the festival's most exciting performances.
For 15 years, The Roots have gathered the music’s brightest and fastest-rising talents to perform in Philadelphia for their annual Roots Picnic, and this year’s lineup was nothing short of star-studded.
After kicking off the weekend with Dave Chappelle’s comedy show at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday, the action moved to the Mann Center in Fairmont Park where fans witnessed surprise crew reunions, unexpected cameos, and a taste of the Las Vegas strip across three performance stages.
On Saturday, legendary rap group State Property reunited for the first time in years, Lil Uzi Vert rocked out with the Park Stage crowd for his third picnic appearance. Supported by the Soulquarians, legends the Isley Brothers and Roy Ayers lit up the Park stage. Lauryn Hill closed out day two by commemorating her GRAMMY-winning album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and bringing out Pras and Wyclef Jean for a Fugees reunion.
Sunday featured high-powered performances from soulful songstress Ari Lennox, former Ruff Ryders first lady Eve, and the devastating femmes of South Florida, the City Girls. Philly’s own DJ Drama drew out home-grown talents like D-Surdy, Armani White, and Bronx legend Fat Joe on the Presser stage.
To close out the weekend, Usher brought the magic of his Vegas residency to West Philly for a string of era-defining hits in the twilight of the festival. Read on for some of the most captivating moments and exciting sets from the 2023 Roots Picnic.
GloRilla Shines In Roots Picnic Debut
GloRilla | Kayla Oaddams/Getty Images
Unapologetic rebel GloRilla may have just one EP under her belt, but her growing fandom came alive during her Roots Picnic performance.
The Presser Stage crowd swooned along with femme-empowering smashes like "Phatnall," as well as more provocative songs like "Nut Quick" and "Lick or Sum." Legions of newly single fans screamed the lyrics to crunk hit "F.N.F. (Let’s Go)."
Big Glo kept the momentum going at high speed, loosening the relatively stiff crowd. And while Cardi B wasn’t present for her part in "Tomorrow 2," GloRilla brought out an energized and visibly pregnant Chrisean Rock for a twerk-worthy cameo.
GloRilla truly embraced her rowdy nature and southern charm, which has helped her earn garner recognition from her peers and even notch her first GRAMMY nod for Best Rap Performance.
Usher Brings Sultry And Sin To The City, With A Few Special Guests
Usher and Black Thought perform | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Before Usher had even closed out the festival, radio and podcast personality Charlamagne and comedian Jess Hilarious talked about wrapping up their own event early to snag a close seat to watch the R&B star in action.
Though decades into his musical career, Usher hasn't missed a step. Dressed in leather, the eight-time GRAMMY winner delivered his classic, slow-burning album cuts and glossy radio hits under the glimmering lights of the open air Park stage.
Usher put on an electrifying performance that covered hits from various eras in his catalog. Songs like "Love in This Club," "U Don’t Have to Call," and "Lil Freak" had Sunday’s crowd staring in awe, even for those looking to get ahead of the departing traffic. He also brought The Roots on stage before Philly natives Jazmine Sullivan, Eve and Black Thought joined the singer to perform "U Got Me."
Lauryn Hill (And Some Famous Friends) Took The Crowd Way Back
Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel of the Fugees | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Lauryn Hill’s reputation precedes her. Some fans joked about her tardiness — or even potential absence — but the legendary vocalist arrived about 30 minutes past her scheduled set time and put on a performance that was met with shockwaves of cheers.
Hill's headlining performance coincides with a big milestone: the 25th anniversary of her groundbreaking album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "Even though it's been 25 years, everything is still everything," she told the enlivened crowd.
She performed tracks from the masterful GRAMMY-winning album, including "Everything Is Everything" and "When It Hurts So Bad," but perhaps the biggest surprise throughout the weekend was the reunion between her, Pras and Wyclef Jean. The trio came together as the Fugees to perform hits "Ready Or Not" and "Killing Me Softly" for a spirited celebration of the group’s 1996 album The Score.
"We’re out here doing 25 years of Miseducation. But there’s another 25 years we didn’t do a couple of years ago because of COVID," Hill said of the group’s project. The group closed out with "Fu-Gee-La," with Hill switching from her soothing alto to her "L-Boogie" persona of old, bringing the joyous crowd to its knees.
City Girls Bring The Twerkers Out To Play
The City Girls brought headliner energy to Sunday’s picnic, with JT and Young Miami inciting a twerkathon with hot summer girl anthems like "Act Up" and "Do It On The Tip" playing out center stage.
The Miami duo kept the energy high with on-stage twerk moves, pulsating hits like "Twerkulator," and efforts to draw out the crowd’s inner act-bad attitude by screaming: "If you’re a bad bitch, say, ‘Hell, yeah!’" And by the end of the group’s performance, fans were left with a racing heartbeat or sweating from the constant flow of high-powered hits and go-get-him-girl records.
Lil Uzi Vert Knows What The City Wants
Lil Uzi Vert | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Now in their third appearance since 2016, Philly native Lil Uzi Vert took to the Park stage on Saturday, bringing enough bass and adoring screams that could be heard across Fairmont Park.
"I ain’t going to do too much talking. Let’s do it," they said to the roaring crowd. While Lil Uzi’s voice occasionally drowned in a song’s instrumental, their effortless magnetism and signature shoulder roll dance brought excitement to the growing crowd.
The rumblings of hits like "444+222" and "Sauce It Up" rang in fans’ ears, and songs like "Money Longer," and the Diamond-selling smash "XO Tour Llif3" nearly turned portions of the crowd into mosh pits. Lil Uzi’s performance came to a welcomed halt when fans were invited to the stage to dance to the massively popular "Just Wanna Rock," which has become an unofficial anthem in their hometown. "I’m in the city, this they s—." Fans pulled out their phones as the rap star capped off the set with the viral hit.
Lucky Daye Drips In Allure
Only a year removed from his breakthrough album, Candydrip — a genre-drifting and soul-stirring project riddled with pop and R&B hits — Lucky Daye has risen to star status. And with songs like "Real Games" and "Late Night," it’s easy to be drawn to the New Orleans-born artist.
While initially draped in glimmering red garments, it didn’t take the artist long to strip down (well, shirtless, that is), and render impassioned vocals over the cheers and screams of his admirers. He dove into songs across his various albums and fell to his knees to deliver a burningly passionate rendition of "F—kin’ Sound" before the 37-year-old vocalist exited the Mann’s amphitheater stage.
Ari Lennox Conjures Soul In Comforting Fashion
Ari Lennox | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
It’s unclear if Ari Lennox still has plans to step away from the touring circuit for good, but if her Sunday evening performance is any indication, her presence would be sorely missed. The "Shea Butter Baby" vocalist conjured every fragment of her soulful and poetic artistry, bringing vibes despite having a slight cold.
The DC-born R&B singer danced to the flowy breeze setting over the stretched-out crowd while singing favored tracks like "New Apartment," as well as "Waste My Time" and "Pressure" from last year’s Age/Sex/Location. Lennox encouraged fans to close their eyes and sway their hips, and many raised drinks as Lennox’s soothing voice and sultry lyrics wrapped around their bodies.
Busta Rhymes And Eve Come To Devastate
Spliff Star and Busta Rhymes | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Joined by The Roots’ Black Thought, Busta Rhymes and Spliff Star tore down the Park stage, even with distracting audio woes hindering the early part of their set. Shot mic or not, Busta’s lion-like voice could be heard from yards away as he spewed the lyrics to "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" and A Tribe Called Quest’s "Scenario" to a cheering audience.
Eve arrived during the latter part of the DJ J. Period curated set. The former First Lady of Ruff Ryder burst onto the stage and held her own alongside the fellow hip-hop heavyweights. As she swayed the crowd with songs like "Tambourine" and her verse on the late DMX’s "Ruff Ryders Anthem (Remix)," it harkened back to her days as a lyrical wild card in the early 2000s before she ventured into acting and hosting gigs.
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9 Artist-Hosted Podcasts You Should Check Out Now: Sam Smith, David Guetta, Norah Jones & More
From Dua Lipa to Joe Budden, some of music's biggest names have added "podcast host" to their impressive resumes. Grab your headphones and take a listen to nine of the most insightful and creative shows led by artists.
As podcasts have become increasingly popular among listeners, they've also become a preferred playground for music makers to express themselves — and in turn, show a new side of their artistry.
Whether it's hours-long interviews courtesy of early adopter Questlove, breezy conversations with a musical accompaniment by Norah Jones, or a vital history lesson from Sam Smith, podcasts are allowing artists to further connect with their fans. And though there's already a disparate array of musician-led shows out there, it's seemingly just the beginning of a new podcast wave.
Below, get to know nine of the most interesting artist-hosted podcasts available.
Norah Jones is Playing Along
A relatively new addition to the podcast sphere, Norah Jones is Playing Along is exactly what it sounds like. Hosted by the "Come Away With Me" crooner, the show features Jones jamming on a piano with a cadre of her musician friends and colleagues. The show's guest list is similarly varied, with recent episodes including memorable conversations with indie folk artist Andrew Bird, country singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson and jazz virtuoso and Robert Glasper all of whom took viewers on a musical journey through their catalogs and beyond.
Broken Record with Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell
Known as music's wise sage, legendary music producer Rick Rubin showcases his zen energy and insatiable passion for music on this informative podcast, which he hosts alongside journalist-author Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times editor Bruce Headlam and producer Justin Richmond. Much like Rubin's list of collaborators — which has ranged from everyone including Johnny Cash, Adele and Rage Against the Machine — the show zig-zags between insightful interviews with a range of music's most accomplished names, including Giles Martin, Feist, Usher, The Edge, Aaron Dessner, and Babyface.
Dua Lipa: At Your Service
Aside from her GRAMMY-winning music career, pop icon Dua Lipa has a bubbling entrepreneurial streak in the form of Service 95, a multi-platform lifestyle brand which includes a newsletter and special events. It also produces the popular podcast At Your Service, on which Lipa interviews a diverse range of personalities including musicians (collaborators Charli XCX and Elton John), cultural luminaries (Dita Von Teese) and activists (Brandon Wolf) for laidback conversations about their respective careers.
Amid his roles as a founding member of the Roots, bandleader on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," a prolific filmmaker and a best-selling author, Questlove adds podcast host to his rich cultural tapestry with Questlove Supreme. The show prides itself on loose, intimate and in-depth conversations with a who's who of music's luminaires, whether a multi-hour, emotional chat with Mariah Carey, an insightful conversation with trumpet legend Herb Alpert, or icons ranging from the late Wayne Shorter to Bruce Springsteen and manager Shep Gordon.
Table Manners with Jessie and Lennie Ware
British songstress Jessie Ware teams up with her mother, Lennie, on this effervescent podcast, which showcases the "Free Yourself" singer munching on a delicious home cooked meal while having a conversation that's equally scrumptious. Whether the two are having pink salmon with Pink, eggplant pie with Shania Twain or spinach pie and florentines with Kim Petras, it all makes for an extremely listenable (and hunger-inducing) spin on the medium.
Flea's This Little Light
Earlier this year, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Flea launched the interview series This Little Light, which zeroes in on the importance of music education. In short order, the podcast has already boasted heavy-hitter guests, including Cynthia Erivo, Patti Smith and Margo Price. "I wanted to do This Little Light to benefit my music school, the Silverlake Conservatory of Music," he said in a statement upon its release. "The idea behind it being music education, falling in love with music and embarking on a musical journey for your life. Everybody's path is so different, and it's fascinating to learn how every musician came to music and developed their study of it over time."
Sam Smith Presents A Positive Life: HIV from Terrence Higgins to Today
Five-time GRAMMY winner Sam Smith hosts a touching and informative history of the AIDS crisis from a UK perspective — from the earliest, heart-wrenching days of the disease to modern-day tales, including the death of Terry Higgins (one of the region's earliest deaths) as well as breakthrough treatments. Meticulously researched and told in a documentary-style, the BBC podcast is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking — but above all, demonstrates that artists can effectively tell stories beyond the realm of music, while raising awareness at the same time.
David Guetta: The Podcast
A departure from every other podcast on this list, dance music king and David Guetta strays from the interview format and lets the music do the talking. Guetta hosts this weekly hour-long podcast doubles as a playlist, which features a selection of songs handpicked by Guetta himself. Typically opening with a remix from Guetta himself (he recently featured his spin on Kim Petras' and Sam Smith's GRAMMY-winning hit "Unholy,") the show then explores a variety of electronic tracks from a disparate list of artists, including tracks from dance music mavens Olivier Giacomotto, Idris Elba and Robin Shulz.
The Joe Budden Podcast
Still going strong eight years after its launch, The Joe Budden Podcast is hosted by the eponymous rapper and his friends as they talk through matters of hip-hop and their own lives, with recent topics focusing on everything from Cher's love life to the Met Gala. Each episode — which regularly hovers around the three-hour mark — is like being a fly on the wall to Budden and friends. Of course, there's celebrity interviews along the way, with headline-making chats with the likes of Akon and N.O.R.E.
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GRAMMY Rewind: Erykah Badu Thanks Stevie Wonder & George Clinton For Influencing 'Baduizm' In 1998
After 'Baduizm' won Best R&B Album at the 1998 GRAMMYs, Erykah Badu dedicated her golden gramophone to two of her idols — as well as the rising musicians who often go unheard.
The world first fell in love with Erykah Badu in 1997, when she released her debut studio album, Baduizm. Helmed by hits "On & On," "Next Lifetime" and "Appletree," Badu skyrocketed to stardom as Baduizm made its way to the top of the charts — and helped her snag four GRAMMY nominations at the 1998 GRAMMYs, including Best New Artist.
In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, we revisit one of Badu's two wins from that night, when Baduizm won Best R&B Album. (Badu also won Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for "On & On.")
"Woo!" Badu cheered at the start of her acceptance speech. "I represent the artists who are often unheard, and this is for us."
Badu went on to praise her "dream team" at her record label, Kedar Entertainment, her family, and the people who assisted in the making of Baduizm — including the two artists who influenced the album, George Clinton and Stevie Wonder.
Before heading off the stage, she closed out her speech by acknowledging two more special people in her life: God and her fans. "I would like to thank the creator for giving me this gift. I thank my fans. Peace!" Badu said.
Press play on the video above to watch Erykah Badu's entire Best R&B Album acceptance speech at the 1998 GRAMMY Awards, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.
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Remembering Harry Belafonte’s Monumental Legacy: A Life In Music, A Passion For Activism
American icon Harry Belafonte passed away on April 25 at age 96. Throughout his legendary musical and acting career, Belafonte broke barriers and demonstrated a commendable commitment to equality.
An American icon whose outsize influence spanned generations and blazed trails, Harry Belafonte’s death at the age of 96 marks the end of a legendary life and career that shone in not only music, but social issues and the culture at large.
A two-time GRAMMY winner and 11-time career nominee, Belafonte's impact on the Recording Academy has lasted as long as the organization itself. The artist earned a nomination at the first-ever GRAMMY Awards in 1959 for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance (for his album Belafonte Sings the Blues). He’d win three years later for Best Performance- Folk for "Swing Dat Hammer." His other win came in the form of a GRAMMY for Best Folk Recording for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, and three of his recordings are in the GRAMMY Hall of Fame.
"Harry Belafonte has made an immeasurable impact on the music community, our country and our world,” says Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy. "Through his music and his activism in the civil rights movement, Belafonte has used his voice to break racial barriers in America since the ‘50s. It’s been an honor to celebrate his influence on our society throughout his impactful career."
Over nearly a century of life, Belafonte left a significant impact that has resonated with common audiences and up to the highest echelons of arts and politics. As news of his passing spread across the world, remembrances, praise and thanks appeared on social media.
Quincy Jones, one of many luminaries celebrating Belafonte's legacy today, remembered, "From our time coming up, struggling to make it in New York in the '50s with our brother Sidney Poitier, to our work on 'We Are The World' & everything in between, you were the standard bearer for what it meant to be an artist and activist."
"He inspired me so much personally," said John Legend, recalling Belafonte’s immense impact. "I learned at his feet basically about all of the great work he’s done over the years, and if you think about what it means to be an artist and an activist he was literally the epitome of what that was." Former President Barack Obama heralded Belafonte as a "barrier-breaking legend" who transformed "the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style."
A Trailblazing Artist Who Never Simply Toed The Line
In a 1998 "American Masters" interview for PBS, Belafonte mused about his life and legacy, noting, "One way or another, the essence of life is, in fact, the journey itself."
If that’s the case, Belafonte’s momentous path from his humble Harlem, New York youth to a successful club act, singing star and champion of equality amounts to an astonishing rise that no other Black artist had ever experienced before. His velvety voice and penchant for singing earworm songs along with a relaxed style endeared him to his initial '50s-era audiences.
Yet Belafonte was no mere one-note easy-listening act; he helped popularize calypso, was essential in bringing folk music to the mainstream, and also successfully recorded blues and even novelty songs. Sometimes his music was bombastic ("Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)"), while on other occasions deftly understated ("A Hole in the Bucket"). Early hit "Matilda" begins with Belafonte happily whistling. "Hey! Ma-Til-Da," he cooly croons.
Influenced by his nightclub act, Belafonte's 1956 album Calypso was the first LP to sell one million copies — a stunning achievement for a genre not widely heard before. (As a result, the Library of Congress later added it to the National Recording Registry of significant American work.) Calypso was marketed as "not just another presentation of island songs," and its liner notes can be read as a reflection of the often complex role race and fame played in Belafonte's life.
Calypso's "songs [are] ranging in mood from brassy gaiety to wistful sadness, from tender love to heroic largeness," its liner notes read at the time, helping sell a fresh genre to a new audience. "And through it all runs the irrepressible rhythms of a people who have not lost the ability to laugh at themselves."
Throughout his career, Belafonte deftly navigated the line between mainstream hits and songs with a deeper meaning. When it came to recording "The Banana Boat Song" — the instantly recognizable sing-along party tune from Calypso, which originated as a traditional Jamaican folk song — Belafonte told "American Masters" that the song was a "conscious choice." Singing its memorable "Day-o!" refrain was "beautiful, powerful" and "a classic work song that spoke about struggles of the people who were underpaid and the victims of colonialism. In the song, it talked about our aspirations for a better way of life."
Aside from his singing career, Belafonte also dominated Broadway. In 1954, he won a Tony Award for his role in "John Murray Anderson’s Almanac," a musical revue. He also dabbled in film, from his 1953 debut to Spike Lee’s 2018 movie BlacKkKlansman.
He remained humble, if not slightly casual, about his success. "I had no problem being thrust into the world of stardom because I never thought about it," Belafonte told ABC News in 1981. "Nowhere in my boyhood dreams was I thinking one day I’d be in Hollywood, one day I’d be on Broadway, one day I’d be making an album that was successful. I was quite content, as most Blacks were in that period, to practice my artform and hopefully find a constituency somewhere in the world because the larger dream eluded all of us."
A Lifetime Of Activism
As his fame grew, Belafonte’s penchant for activism collided with a fast-changing America that was confronting the oppression of the '50s and reacting to the turbulence of the '60s. As a result, Belafonte's impressive musical legacy will forever be intertwined with his passion for activism.
Belafonte rubbed shoulders with the titans of his time: He attended John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala (an invitation extended by Frank Sinatra), received inspiration from artist and activist Paul Robeson, he became a face of the civil rights movement alongside close friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, it was Dr. King who initiated the meeting with Belafonte. "He was coming to New York to speak to the religious community, the ecumenical community at the Abyssinian Baptist Church," Belafonte recalled to "PBS Newshour" in 2018 of their first encounter. "As a young Black artist on the rise [at the time], I began to make a bit of noise on my own terms. I began to violate the codes of racial separation. I understood the evils of racism and rebelled from my youth. He was 24. I was 26."
That confab began a friendship that would help shape the civil rights movement at large. Belafonte participated in the Freedom Rides and March on Washington, and even hosted "The Tonight Show" for a week in 1968 where Dr. King was one of his guests. The singer took King’s assassination as an exhortation, and committed fully to the quest for equity; he remained a passionate activist for decades.
Musically, that passion included an urge to help the plight of people in war-stricken Africa; his idea for a benefit single resulted in "We Are the World." The smash swept the GRAMMYs in 1986, winning Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal and Best Music Video, Short Form. In recent years he founded the social justice organization Sankofa, released the book My Song: A Memoir and was the subject of the documentary Sing Your Song. Last year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"(He was a) shining example of how to use your platform to make change in the world," said Questlove on Instagram. "If there is one lesson we can learn from him it is, ‘What can I do to help mankind?’"
He added, "Thank you Harry Belafonte!"
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