“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Christoph Carr talks art, music, and protest.
Scholar, activist, musician, event organizer, author—Christoph Carr is the personification of a visionary. As the co-founder of Brooklyn Wildlife and Black Land Ownership, Carr has long been working to break down boundaries and to create space where art and life can thrive without outside imposition.
More recently, he's been leading unique NYC-based Black Lives Matter protests that attempt to engage directly with the police. His many projects address current, pressing needs—but they also envision a world that could be, a world of connection, deep roots, and human empathy. Here, we spoke about the stories behind his groundbreaking organizations, and the grief and strange possibility buried in the depths of 2020.
How did Brooklyn Wildlife come to be? What space did you want it to fill?
I moved to New York in 2008 for a relationship, and by summer 2009 that relationship was falling apart. I was on the cusp of going back to DC or staying in New York, and I decided to stay.
A homie I knew had just gotten back to town and he was doing music, and we started recording a project together. By 2010 we finished the project and we were trying to do shows, but we ran into a huge issue while trying to book shows as a rap group without an agent or a booking company. The clubs didn't want to answer emails—they'd say talk to the booker, and the booker would say talk to the promoter. [A lot of these places] were only doing two hip hop shows a month at that time, or they wouldn't even book hip hop.
So me and my friend were like, we gotta just throw the shows ourselves. We know other musicians; let's just throw the party.
Chris Carr performing
When we first started sending out emails, we realized that a lot of the bookers and promoters didn't want to deal with artists, and we had to come up with a name or some way to be able to book the shows separately from us as performers. So we were like, let's start Brooklyn Wildlife. Let's make the events that we want to go to.
I was really inspired by the events going on when I moved to New York, but there was this partitioning and almost like segregation, where if I went to the warehouse electronic music parties, there was no hip hop. If I went to the hip hop shows, there was no folk.
And I like all of it. I like burlesque, I like comedy and music and visual art shows and filmmaking, and there wasn't really something that I saw that brought all these different elements together in a way that was authentic and aware and respectful of the traditions of those types of art forms.
I really obsess over hip hop and enjoy the cultural elements of hip hop and it being the quintessential postmodernist music form in its use of bricolage and sampling and expression, but I also really dug my friends who were DJing grime or dubstep or international music—what people might see as world music, or Afro-Soul and house music. All these things were of interest, and we weren't finding that.
So we started working with people we knew as Brooklyn Wildlife to throw as many shows as possible. Over the past few years we've done literally thousands of events, but it started out as wanting to have something for ourselves, and wanting to go to shows that we would enjoy ourselves.
Were you always involved in art and music?
I can't say always, but to a certain extent yes—my mom put me in violin lessons when I was five, and I was bad. In high school, I got into hip hop, but I was also playing sports, and hip hop wasn't an organized, structured activity at the time. When I got to college I started taking hip hop more seriously, MCing and writing and going out with my friends who wrote graffiti—and realized I wasn't good at that. Dancing, I wasn't good at that. DJing, not so much. I always like the types of music that other people didn't really "like" like—I like the B-sides, the secret album cut, the songs that are kind of reflective or might not be the party starters, by artists who may be more fringe or outside the status quo.
MCing was this great platform for me to learn about myself, society, and other people. When I was 18 or 19, in 1996-7, you could meet rappers and end up knowing people that worked on music video sets, just by being around the college environment I was in in Atlanta. You could run into Cee Lo Green outside the tabernacle.
At that point, I reattached to music in a serious way. [In Atlanta, there was this] level of professionalism and seriousness about what could be done with hip hop. I was still in school, and then I went to grad school at Columbia, but music was always a side thing—and it kept pulling at me. It wasn't until I left grad school and went back to DC that I was like, I need to make music. What would happen if I put all this time and effort and energy into making music on a full-time level?
I decided to invest whatever money I had into making my own studio and started making my own beats and throwing shows in DC. We were trying to throw more shows than everybody.
Since then, I don't really get writers' block or caught up in not being inspired. Since then it's been consistent: make a living from art.
A lot of your work seems to be about bringing people together in a way that's separate from corporate ownership. You started Brooklyn Wildlife because you wanted to have your own performance space that others didn't have to approve—and with Black Land Ownership, you're working to make space for people to own land outside of corporations. What's the connection between them?
One's an extension of the other. Some of the ideas from Black Land Ownership directly extend from what we learned doing Brooklyn Wildlife. The main thing is: If you don't own the land, you will not be able to dictate what happens on that land.
When I moved to my apartment, at the time, people were throwing mad shows at McKibben. As the building changes, the landlords start bringing in tenants and our neighbors move, and now it's people that have to wake up and go to work in the morning, and they start complaining to the landlords, and the landlords might lose money, so they tell me I have to stop making music.
We decided we'd rent DIY spaces. Still, if your neighbors don't like it, they call the cops. If the businesses nearby don't like it, they'll call the cops. Your landlord can shut you down. There's always someone that can make it difficult.
Whereas if you own a space, it's a lot harder for people to cause you problems. In New York it's too expensive to just buy a building. But when I went out to Colorado and Texas and parts of the country that are really wide open, I started thinking: There's so much space. If we had land, we could throw an outdoor festival with 100 people and no one could complain about anything. If people didn't like the noise, they wouldn't have to deal with it.
Still, you're going to have to lease farmland or county fair kinds of land. But when you do that, the owners can ask what types of events you're doing, and they can say that they only want certain things. And we can't really have that. We make sure we book artists that aren't using hate speech or being misogynistic or racist or phobic towards any marginalized groups, but people should be able to express their political ideologies, their emotional feelings and their spiritual feelings. And we shouldn't have to worry about some person who runs the fairgrounds saying: You all are anti-capitalist, that's anti-American, we don't want to have this.
So it comes to—well, you have to own the land. The only way that's possible for a group of artists is in more rural areas where the land is less expensive.
In Colorado, I was able to stay for free by working on a farm, and as I was pulling roots out of the ground—it gave me a lot of time to think. I did some shows while I was traveling, and when I came back I was like, why isn't that opportunity made more [available] for Black folks?
Denver is the most diverse city in Colorado, and it's still very homogenous in a certain way. In Grand Junction you're back towards the more conservative side, and you can tell people are like—"We don't have any Black people here, where'd you come from?"
It was shocking. [I started to ask], how come all the Black folks are crammed into cities on the East and West Coast, being pushed out, dealing with gentrification, being erased geographically—or we're in areas of the South and midwest that are economically depressed, dealing with racism and violence and stratification? There's all this space where there's plenty of land to grow food. Part of [the problem] is we only own 2% of the rural land in the country. So how are we going to get healthy food? We don't own the means of production.
In my mind, Marxism isn't a political system—it's an assessment of how capitalism works—and in the Marxist understanding, you have to own the means of production. If you want to have a place to grow your food, you need to own the land, or they'll push you out and find that it's more lucrative for Walmart to buy it.
[During] the Civil Rights movement, it was less difficult to find a common thread amongst different Black people. The idea of basic human rights could transcend layers of partitioning. Now there are certainly different opinions—on reproductive rights, on gender—but the one thing I could find that didn't cause people to have conflict is Black land ownership. It's not politicized, but no one talks about it. You have discussions about fair housing or affordable housing, but there are Black people with money who can't move where they want to due to institutional racism around land ownership, or groups of non-Black people pushing them out when they do make purchases.
Providing spaces for artists is important, but artists need an opportunity not to be stuck in the city paying $1,000 or $1,500 in rent every month. We need to get out and lay in a field, and play songs and run around, and have space in nature and grass under our feet, and be able to draw inspiration from something other than concrete and metal buildings.
How are you doing with COVID and everything?
It's been quite a year. Last spring, back in March, my partner had her appendix removed. She gets a call back, and she has to get a biopsy. And then [sic] she tests positive for appendix cancer, and they say they have to take out part of her colon. She has surgery in May and is recovering in June. She gets cleared. A week and a half to two weeks after that, I get diagnosed with melanoma in my toe and I have to get my pinky toe amputated.
I can't walk for however long. So I figure out how to pull off my summer festival and start throwing small shows, then wintertime hits. I go to California and tour, then in March I'm scheduled to go to SXSW. I had booked over 40 performers at the house we were renting down there, but COVID pops up the week we're supposed to go, and they cancel. That weekend of the 15th, lockdown started. In a weird way, I had already been on lockdown. Both [my partner and I] had been in our house a lot, working on our personal projects. I stopped drinking, so we stopped going to bars and clubs. COVID didn't change a whole lot for me.
I really miss not being able to meet new folks and engage with people and learn about their musical journeys. I've made a lot of stuff while we were trapped inside—a whole bunch of new songs, a project with my friend Annie Are You Okay—and a bunch of songs I've recorded with other people. And there are new secret projects I've been working on, and I finally put out one of my books—Thoughts of an Angry Black Man.
You've also led a few Black Lives Matter protests recently. Can you tell me about how that started?
I do a lot of Facebook Lives, and I was doing one about hip hop, recording in front of my building. I have my phone resting up on the fence. Since the camera is facing the street, I see the police pulling up. Then they walk up to me, and they're like, are you so and so, and I'm like nope, can't help you. And I'm like, by the way, I'm recording on Facebook Live. And they're like, we're concerned for you, are you on any medication? And I was like, no, what's this about—and they're like, we got a call that there's a man out here talking to himself and kicking at people.
And I was like, I've been recording this whole thing. Instead of them being like sorry, whatever, they're like, we're concerned—are you on medication? I was like, I don't have to answer any of your questions, but what do we have to do to make this the least conflictual as possible? Finally I just told them I live across the street, I volunteer at the school down the street, I run a store around the corner. They're finally like, we just had to check, someone called. And I'm like, what do you mean, someone called? Did you check if they're on medication?
When they pull off, I go upstairs. I look out the window and another cop car pulls up, so I [decide] I'm going to ask them how to file a report. Those police were like, you didn't have to answer the questions; you could've walked away. And I was like, really? You can't walk away from a police officer.
And then [I realize] the car I was leaning on—it's an undercover car. And an ambulance had been called. Two regular cop cars, an undercover car, and an ambulance came.
This is after Floyd stuff had happened, and I'm like, this could have gone so badly if I had a different demeanor. When I came back in I was really frustrated, and I started asking myself: what can I do to remove the standard approach to this? Who can I talk to about this?
So I walk over to the precinct, and see three cops there. And they're like: Who do you want to talk to? One cop says, "You gotta understand, people get called on emotionally disturbed people…" And finally they get the community liaison.
The liaison basically makes sure that protocol wasn't broken, and she asks if I want to file a report. One of the cops was a Black woman, and the other was a Latinx man, I think...I didn't want to get the cops in trouble. It's a policy that someone else created, that made it so they couldn't leave me alone.
After that, I was even more frustrated. When I left the precinct I was like, I gotta think of something to do that's not the same old me going back and yelling at the cops or not doing anything.
So I was like, what if I take flowers to the precinct, and talk to the guys standing in front of it and tell them about how I'd been stopped for no reason, and use the flowers as metaphors for other people who have been detailed without cause, or assaulted or brutalized by the police, or in horrible circumstances, lost their lives at the hands of the police?
[I wanted to] get the issue past politics, past the idea of Democrat/Republican or authority or anti-authority, or any of these names of organized groups. I'm a person, and the only person that ever pulled a gun on me in my life was a police officer. My friend down in Atlanta got killed by the police; my other friend in DC got shot by the police when he was unarmed. [I wanted to] root it in their humanity. Before they put on their guns and badges, they're humans, and I'm a human. Let's engage with the reality of how policing has had a negative effect on my community.
I went to the vigil at McCarren Park, and told some people about the flower thing. We ended up organizing a march from McCarren over to the 94th Precinct in Greenpoint. We took the flowers and had a line of people marching. It was wild to see that solidarity—to see how many people's lives had been touched by police brutality. It wasn't 20 people—it was over a hundred people who knew someone who had been hurt. There was no social media, no organized nonprofit entity. It was just people who had friends and heard the stories and wanted to show unity. And [they showed that] if the police harm one person in the community, 100 people might show up to support.
We organized another one that went from House of Yes over to the precinct on Knickerbocker. It's something that will continue, keeping in mind that it's about peace and love. The police aren't used to people showing up with flowers, saying, my friend got hurt by the police, and we want you to know this is personal.
This is about us as people. When we're walking on the streets, we're citizens, not criminals. You don't look at someone like me and automatically assume I'm the target of your predatory predisposition.
It's been a trip. I think it's cathartic for certain folks. They had never had the chance to present the emotions they had towards the police to the police. They may have told friends and family members, but to be able to tell the police officer in this manner that is somewhat controlled and purposeful—it kind of allowed for a valve to release pressure.
After the first march [sic], we were walking back from the precinct in Bushwick. There was a fire hydrant that was popped, and so a bunch of us danced in the fire hydrant—[it was a] cleansing experience. It was important for me, to see that solidarity, to see how all these other people have a common experience.
Find Christoph Carr's Patreon here.