Harry Belafonte Talks Donald Trump at Many Rivers to Cross Festival: 'America Has a Cancer at Work'

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Common and Harry Belafonte attend 2016 Many Rivers To Cross Festival at Bouckaert Farm on Oct. 2, 2016 in Fairburn, Ga.

Veteran civil rights activist Harry Belafonte credits the looming possibility of a Donald Trump presidency as the motivating force behind his two-day Many Rivers to Cross music festival hosted by his social justice nonprofit Sankofa.org and held in Fairburn, Georgia, over the weekend.

As thousands of music fans snaked in behind him on the road below to enter the festival grounds Saturday, Belafonte, 89, told Billboard: “The idea [of a Trump presidency] is precisely why I’m here in Georgia. There’s been a million reasons in the past few years to reach out and mobilize, but I felt the timing wasn’t quite correct to gather like minds to make a difference until Donald Trump stepped into the space. It isn’t just Donald Trump, the man or his villainy, his broken spirit or the corruption of his soul that is always a presence in our midst. It was startling to see the number of people who approved of him, who embraced him and who support his utterances. America has a cancer that’s at work. It’s slowly distributing itself through the national body. We have a responsibility as citizens to make sure that not only is Donald Trump defeated but we must become more vigilant about what we’re doing with the use of the vote.”

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

Belafonte was aided in his musical and social justice mission by Many Rivers festival performers, including Common, T.I., Santana, Public Enemy (whose anthem “Fight the Power,” first written for the 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing, ignited the crowd Saturday afternoon), Empire star Jussie Smollett and Macklemore. Many of the performers took time between songs to urge people to vote next month.

Belefonte, who endorsed presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the primaries, said he understands why some millennials are currently discouraged, but as one of the civil rights activists who led the country to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he cannot support their decision not to vote.

“Young people who believe that their vote doesn’t matter have misread history,” Belafonte said. “They don’t understand what we’ve achieved. Everyone in America can vote. The fact that we don’t vote is not a fault of mission or a fault of the Constitution. It’s a fault of citizens who have become careless, like these young people who say, ‘I see nothing for which to vote.’ The Supreme Court gave us the liberation and legal applications that freed this nation from the bondage of segregation. Ironically, all these years later [with its 2013 decision to invalidate part of the Voting Rights Act], the Supreme Court has turned that history on its head and gone back to the old ways. We have to be very careful. We cannot be cavalier. Those who will tell you that your vote doesn’t count don’t understand history.”

Belafonte -- who, with his breakthrough album Calypso in 1956, became the first recording artist to sell more than a million LPs -- praised the music industry’s current crop of socially minded artists. “I’ve never known America to have as rich a harvest of artists as we do now,” he said. “One of the most important ingredients in our community is our arts community. They attract a lot of attention and audience. When I called my art friends and talked about this moment, they willingly stepped into this space.”

And while he’s been critical of artists, including Beyonce, for not using their power to address societal ills, Belafonte said the civil rights and social justice themes on Lemonade changed his mind. “I greatly admire Beyonce and her husband for stepping to the plate the way they did and deciding to apply themselves in new ways, to new issues that we need to have addressed,” he said. “I’m deeply touched by these artists who have stepped in to do what they’re doing and I applaud it.”

For the first time in 12 years, Belafonte himself took the stage on Sunday, along with Common, John Legend, Maxwell and Diane Reeves, to close out the festival. He performed “Those Three Are on My Mind,” a song written by Pete Seeger and Frances Parker and recorded by Belafonte in 1967 to commemorate the lives of James Chaney, Andrew Goldman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers murdered by Klansmen in Mississippi in 1964.

The singer said he wanted Many Rivers attendees to leave the festival feeling inspired and energized. “America is not asleep,” he said. “We are very much awake. And from time to time, we need to come together to display that. I hope that by what’s said here, people will see that they are not alone. There are a lot of us and that together, if we hammer out the right agenda, we can change the course of history.”