Harry Belafonte Talks 'Many Rivers to Cross' Music & Justice Festival: 'This Isn't a Spectator Sport'

AP Photo/Steffi Loos, File
Harry Belafonte arrives at the charity gala Ein Herz fuer Kinder (A heart for children) in Berlin. Belafonte is hoping to lead the charge with his “Many to Rivers Cross” festival, a racial and social justice event debuting Oct. 1-2. 

The civil rights pioneer says Prince "was very much a force in all this."

“Artists are the gatekeepers to truth.”

This quote from late singer/actor Paul Robeson, often referenced by fellow ‘60s social activist Harry Belafonte, reverberated throughout a press briefing Thursday afternoon (Aug. 25) for Many Rivers to Cross, the inaugural multi-generation music and arts festival being presented by Belafonte’s social justice organization Sankofa.org. Featuring John Legend, Common, Public Enemy, Macklemore, Jesse Williams and more, the two-day event will take place in Atlanta on Oct. 1-2.

John Legend, Common, Jesse Williams & More to Headline 'Many Rivers to Cross' Social-Justice Festival

During the nearly 50-minute telephone conference call, Belafonte revealed that Prince had agreed to participate. “One of the people who was very much a force in all of this was Prince,” said Belafonte. “I was supposed to meet Prince on the week he died. We were going to have our fourth meeting in New York when we got word that he had unfortunately passed away.”

Belafonte went on to cite Prince’s “Baltimore,” a tribute song the late artist wrote after the death of Freddie Gray. “We want to keep the memory of what Prince had committed himself to. The song is very much a centerpiece [of our event]. We’re encouraging artists to write songs on that subject and other issues.”

The plan is to feature those songs on a music project that Sankofa.org will release at a later date. The two-day fest will be filmed for subsequent airing, with social programs and other related activities spotlighted on the organization’s website. Sankofa.org will distribute all the revenues raised by its various related activities to communities in need across the country. In addition to multiple stages for performances, Many Rivers to Cross will set up a “Social Justice Village” to foster discussion, ideas and solutions addressing the issues of voting rights, mass incarceration and community/police relations.

“This event can bring it all together,” Belafonte said. “The SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], the Vietnam peace groups … as diverse as all those groups were, we came together for the March on Washington and Selma to Montgomery, which were hugely successful."

“Historically, artists have come from the communities that face these same issues,” Public Enemy's Chuck D added. “For the past 30 years, artists have listened to and followed the program of middle men -- lawyers, agents, managers -- who have kind of dangled money and a career to keep them away from their accountability and responsibility. This is necessary: artists linking up on real situations; real people doing real things to redefine our society in these critical times.”

In addition to Belafonte and Chuck D, the briefing included Dream Defenders organizer/mission director Umi Selah, Arab American Association of New York executive director Linda Sarsour and Sankofa.org co-director Gina Belafonte. Belafonte’s youngest daughter said that in support of the upcoming event -- in particular voter registration -- Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will be on hand to introduce a new ice cream flavor: Empower Mint.

“This isn’t a spectator sport,” Belafonte concluded of Many Rivers to Cross. “And I didn’t do this out of ego. We hope to do this every year for as long as it’s necessary.”

For more information about Many Rivers to Cross, click here.