The Pioneers Of Artist-Activism

In many ways, Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan have pioneered music-activism. Here’s what the two trailblazers are up to now.

Fifty-five years ago legendary activist and artist Harry Belafonte released his album Midnight Special, a disc celebrated both for its own musical merits and for the recording debut of a young Bob Dylan on harmonica.

Photo: Bryan Adams

The next year, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan lobbed anthems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” into the middle of the early 1960s protest culture. That same decade, both Belafonte and Dylan marched prominently in support of civil rights – the former alongside Martin Luther King Jr. himself – and became de facto voices for art-as-activism.

Belafonte, who turned 90 on March 1, remains politically active, endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and serving as honorary co-chair of January’s Women’s March on Washington. The former Zoomer cover subject marks his 90th birthday with When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte, a self-curated musical anthology that includes a children’s choir recording of “When Colors Come Together (Our Island in the Sun).”

Dylan, 75, is harder to pin down – just ask the Nobel Prize committee. These days, the legendary troubadour has largely traded American politics for the American Songbook, that bastion of older artists with an eye toward both nostalgia and record sales. With two previous albums of Sinatra-inspired tunes released since 2015, Triplicate stands as the first three-disc offering of Dylan’s career. A (very) subtle form of political activism, however, may be at work here. A story in Slate wondered if Dylan isn’t playing up the Sinatra angle so much because President Trump used “My Way” as the tune for his first dance after his inauguration. Even if there is a disagreeable connection between Ol’ Blue Eyes and Ol’ Orange Skin, though, Dylan’s lips are sealed.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2017 issue with the headline, “The Age Of Artist-activism,” p. 18.