Gina Belafonte Smiling Headshot

The Feministing Five: Gina Belafonte

For this week’s Feministing Five, I caught up with Gina Belafonte, actor, performer, producer, and passionate racial justice activist. Daughter of the legendary musician and civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte, Gina was the lead producer of the widely praised 2011 film Sing Your Song, about her father.

A longtime theater actress (she toured in the title role of Romeo and Juliet with the National Theater Company after graduating from SUNY Purchase), Gina has also produced theater in Los Angeles and worked with The Mirror Reparatory Company in New York. Later on, Gina helped found the nonprofit Gathering for Justice, a multi-cultural, multi-generational organization that deals with the issues of youth incarceration and the criminalization of poverty.

Today, Gina is co-director of Sankofa.org, a social justice organization founded by her father, who still sits on the advisory board. Sankofa enlists the support of today’s most celebrated artists and influential individuals in collaboration with grassroots partners to elevate the voices of the disenfranchised and promote justice, peace, and equality. They have worked with artists like Common, Usher, John Legend, and Estelle to elevate important progressive causes such as police brutality, racial profiling, and prison reform.

Recently, Sankofa partnered with the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished to put together #SingHerName, an orchestral and choral concert at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York. The upcoming July 13th musical tribute to black women, female activists, and organizers of the historic Civil Rights and #BlackLivesMatter movements will take place one year after Sandra Bland’s passing. I caught up with the dynamic Gina Belafonte about the inspiration behind the upcoming concert, the importance of using the arts as a tool for social justice, and her response to the incredible speech made by her friend (and Sankofa colleague) Jesse Williams at the recent BET Awards.

Senti Sojwal: You are the co-director of social justice organization Sankofa, which was founded by your father, who of course is well known both as an artist and as an activist. Your organization aims to marry the worlds of art, music, and social action. Your organization website talks about “reigniting the activist tradition”, and discusses the 1960s wave of artist-activists which included Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and your father. How do you think that using music as a tool for social change has evolved since your father’s time in the spotlight?

Gina Belafonte: At Sankofa we solicit the support of artists, leaders, and celebrities in partnership with grassroots organizations to shine a light on specific issues. We look to all artistic mediums, so along with music we engage in a lot of other ways in which storytelling presents itself and ways we can shine a light culturally. Music, I think, for centuries has been used in a multiplicity of ways to illuminate different aspects of our culture. When you look at Mozart, he used symphonies and operas to tell stories. I think in many ways, rap music, the original rap, has always been that. I think in some ways, even though R&B was about love songs, it also shared the plight of the black experience when it came to love. I think throughout time, artists have chosen to use their artistry to embody their authentic selves. I think the difference between now and then perhaps it was more obvious in those days. Civil rights and social justice movements back then used music in a way that maybe our movements don’t use as much today. If you look at social justice organizations now, I think we’re always looking to get involved with artists so we can not only have ticket draws but because the artists we’d love to have do have a point of view around an issue that we feel is worth sharing. I think that’s in some ways today there are so many more issues! More things to think and talk about. And I also think there’s sort of hills and valleys of how music emerges as a tool for justice. If you look at someone like Kendrick Lamar, he’s an example of a person who’s saying incredible things through his art and the movement took it on because they felt it embodied much of what they were feeling. But then look at someone like Usher, who for the most part spent his life as a pop singer, and then used his platform to create material where he could respond to police brutality and gun violence. He hit a point where he had had enough, and wanted to use his platform to shine a light on an issue. And he hasn’t turned back from that. I think it can evolve. The more artists see other artists have the courage to take a stand, they see they’re not alone. It hits close to home — eventually, you no longer care if it’s going to compromise your wallet. So I would say the way we see music being used is both evolving and staying the same, in ways that are very important.

Senti Sojwal: You are an activist and a performer, and you’ve also been behind the camera as a producer, recently in a documentary about your father. Working in the arts in the myriad ways that you do, how do you feel that art and social justice inform each other in your own life?

Gina Belafonte: I think art is political. Even art that isn’t meant to be is political — it’s making a statement in and of itself. WIth our film Sing Your Song, it happened to be an artistic medium through which we could tell our story. It was a very political film because the subject matter is incredibly political. It’s great that we had a medium for that story that could reach many people at once. I think that art plays a very important role in politics and in political theater, in social justice activism. Whether it’s a campaign, a slogan, a poster, a way that we start to rhythmically use call and response when we march and how that is being transformed into music — I think of how during slavery music was used to tell stories and share experiences. I think art plays such a critical role. And influential people have such a role — there’s a phrase, “If you don’t preach to the choir, the choir might stop singing”. From a very early age, I was always attracted to certain stories. I’m an avid reader and practitioner of Shakespeare. I’m also dyslexic. But for some reason, reading Shakespeare wasn’t as difficult for me as other things. I never quite understood why, and I think maybe not only the way in which he brings words together, but the subject matter really fascinated me. In school, I read what was required of me and not even always that. I’m not a big reader, to be honest. Much of the way I would consume would be through music and theater as a child. I think also growing up in a home that had such an open door policy towards those who were activists and organizers, political people, as well as artists — that was so influential to me.

Senti Sojwal: #SingHerName is an upcoming orchestral and choral concert whose purpose is to amplify the voices of women involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and it will mark the one-year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s passing. Sankofa is a partner of the Dream Unfinished, the activist orchestra that is putting together the show. Can you tell our readers about how this event came to focus specifically on women’s roles in the movement?

Gina Belafonte: This orchestra came together because they wanted to let the world know that the classical music space had something to say about what was going on in the world. I think that the musicians that came together were not only wanting to let people know that there are things happening in the world that we want to talk about, but also that they want people to learn more about what the struggles are in the classical music space. Where people aren’t afforded the opportunity to play their music. Also, this beautiful orchestra chose to play music that wasn’t heard in mainstream circles of classical music. It’s really quite an amazing group. #SingHerName came out of looking at who is the most marginalized. It’s been women of color and black trans women in particular. Women were not only less of a focus in the larger movement against police brutality, but they did not become newsworthy until Black Lives Matter really stepped into their own. And I think the movement for black lives, and Black Lives Matter, which was distinct but collaborative efforts, have really brought forward the issues and have been doing their best to focus on the voices of the most marginalized. I think that #SingHerName shines a light on that, and brings forward composers that we don’t hear often, and composers that are women. There are also female composers here who have been deeply criticized by male critics about their approach. The Dream Unfinished really came out of this desire to highlight the music of people of color, and use that music to make a statement about police brutality in particular. I’m so deeply grateful for them and so excited about the concert.

Senti Sojwal: I have to talk to you about the recent incredible acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards by Jesse Williams, who sits on the Sankofa advisory board. The speech was impassioned, incredibly political, and of course, went viral. What are your thoughts on the speech, and on Jesse using his platform to address the array of pressing issues that he did?

Gina Belafonte: So many things come to mind. I was very proud of Jesse, I was very grateful for him. This is not new behavior for Jesse. He is an incredibly outspoken artist who has used many platforms many times. I think that he is an example and a very consistent brother. While he’s been on CNN, MSNBC and other platforms before, this is really the first time he’s had the opportunity to address an audience in this way. He has chosen to quite profoundly sit at the feet of the master, so to speak, without making my father seem like some unattainable entity. I think that Jesse, because of his age, and the way he sculpted that particular speech, was able to address a constituency  that really heard him. It was very real, understandable, and heartfelt. It was almost like a one-on-one conversation. It was so accessible and passionate. He spoke deeply from his soul. As black people raising black children, we want to speak to these issues authentically. To all the parents, aunts, and uncles — we need to get everyone on board to shift and change. His speech was in so many ways deeply reminiscent of many my father has given. I’m hoping this is just the beginning of other young people of color having the opportunity to come forward and articulate what’s happening and let other people know, we know this is happening to us. It’s not just the politicians and the civil rights leaders, it’s the artists too. My father gave a great interview a long time ago, and he said something along the lines of, we will do everything in our power to let you know that we know this is happening, because the mainstream media does not give us an opportunity. What mainstream media does is continue to give reporting from a perspective that is not ours. I’m deeply proud of Jesse, and excited that he could highlight Sankofa in the interviews immediately following. He is an active advisory board member and we continue to work together and to build. I just saw a young version of my dad standing there and taking that space. I wasn’t shocked. I would have been in disbelief if he didn’t take that space. He was authentically who he is.

Senti Sojwal: What’s next for you and for Sankofa?  
Gina Belafonte: I’m really interested in focusing on mass incarceration, we’ll be doing a lot of work around that. Sanokfa.org focuses in particular on that issue, as well as juvenile justice, immigration, income disparity issues, and lately we’ve taken on the overall banner of violence. We wanted to be able to not only respond to things that arise in social justice activism, but also because we have many artists who want to work around issues that are not maybe specifically addressed. For example, some might say the Flint water crisis is an issue of eco-violence. Not everyone looks at it that way, maybe they’ll see it as an issue disproportionately affecting people of color — to them, it’s an issue of income disparity. Because we took on the overall banner of violence, we were able to support many different artists who want to look at their issues in a variety of ways. This coming weekend we have a bunch of young, beautiful poets and artists supporting the Center for Popular Democracy’s People’s Campaign. We have Rebel Diaz and a host of other great artists performing down in Pittsburgh. There are a lot of amazing artists doing a lot of amazing things with Sankofa in a lot of amazing ways, taking on so many different issues!

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

Photos courtesy of Gina Belafonte. 

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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