Harry Belafonte’s Many Rivers to Cross Festival: A ‘Woodstock’ for Social Justice

The two-day inaugural music and arts festival brought together like-minded celebrities and activists—including Angela Davis, Jesse Williams, John Legend, Common and Public Enemy—to highlight issues important to the disenfranchised.

Harry Belafonte and Jesse Williams at Many Rivers to Cross festival in Fairburn, Ga., in October 2016
Harry Belafonte and Jesse Williams at Many Rivers to Cross festival in Fairburn, Ga., in October 2016 @ManyRiversFest via Instagram

Even at age 90, Harry Belafonte hasn’t laid down his sword. Over the weekend, he, along with his daughter Gina Belafonte, hosted the inaugural two-day Many Rivers to Cross: A Festival of Music, Art & Justice, just outside Atlanta, through the organization Sankofa.org, which he founded in 2013. Sankofa.org uses celebrities to elevate the issues of the disenfranchised pretty much in the vein of Belafonte himself, who was a popular singer and actor when he lent his celebrity to the civil rights movement.

Thousands gathered at the event, held at the 8,000-acre Bouckaert Horse Ranch in Fairburn, Ga., to enjoy performances by many artists, including Public Enemy, Macklemore, T.I., Estelle, Jussie Smollett, John Legend, Common, Dave Matthews and Carlos Santana. There was also an active social-justice village on-site, powered roughly by 40 nonprofit organizations, including the local New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan initiative focused on voter registration and civic engagement, and the New York-based New Poor People’s Campaign, a revitalized effort honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s original vision.

Belafonte spoke with artists like actor Jesse Williams in an intimate gathering, touching on the responsibilities of artist-activists. Danny Glover, a longtime friend of Belafonte’s, and Michael B. Jordan were also spotted during the Sunday gathering. Other activists spotlighted include onetime inmate and best-selling author Shaka Senghor, who works with #cut50, which seeks to half the prison population by 2025, and talk-show host and Morehouse professor Marc Lamont Hill.

Political commentator and activist Van Jones hit the stage Saturday, noting, “If the Dreamers and Black Lives Matter got together and had their own Woodstock, it might feel like this.” In addition to addressing police brutality, he blasted both major political parties for protecting the bankers and Wall Street, building prisons and supporting senseless wars, while also observing that “we’re here to grieve and to hospice the old order that is dying” and that a new order was upon us. “Sometimes when you have a breakdown, it leads to a breakthrough,” he told the crowd before introducing Macklemore.

When T.I. hit the same stage, he was full of the social-justice bravado that has characterized him of late, performing new, more conscious material like “War Zone,” featuring the chant “Hands up, can’t breathe,” and reflective older material like “Be Better Than Me,” from his 2003 Trap Muzik album. Early in his show, he proclaimed, “We need a new national anthem. That other one don’t represent us no more,” and later made it clear that “I support Colin Kaepernick” while acknowledging that it was OK that others disagree with that stance.

On the heels of her controversial remarks at the “Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism” conference at the University of Texas at Austin, where she suggested that she may vote for Hillary Clinton, Angela Davis took the stage and spoke for about 25 minutes. In addition to noting her early work against mass incarceration and calling for the abolition of all prisons, she addressed the upcoming presidential election, particularly Donald Trump.

“And I have to tell you, I am someone who has never been an affiliate of either of the two major parties,” she informed the crowd, “but Donald Trump, Donald Trump really scares me, and it’s not so much the individual Donald Trump that frightens me, it is the fact that there are vast numbers of people in this country, largely white people, who do not recognize that their pain and their suffering is linked to the pain and suffering of black people and Latinos and Native Americans. They do not realize that they are suffering the consequences of global capitalism, and so you have a capitalist like Donald Trump who represents himself as their savior.”

Although she advocated for a new party that better serves the needs of the people, she realistically surmised, “But, unfortunately, it’s not going to be possible to build that party between now and Election Day, and as much as I will argue that the electoral arena is not a space where we can exercise our radical politics, I will not tell you not to vote. We all have to exercise the right to vote. We have traveled too long and too hard to give up that right today.

“So I want to ask you to think about the best reason for going to the polls next month … and you know what will happen if Donald Trump is elected, you know about the consequences for generations to come—the fact alone that it would be possible to stack the Supreme Court in a way that will reverse so many of the gains for which we struggled over decades and generations,” she added.

But in making her case against Trump, she also played out her uneasiness with the “I’m with her” contingent by bursting out with, “I have problems with Hillary Clinton. I’m sorry. I have problems with the Democratic Party, which is just as linked to the corporate capitalistic structure as the Republicans, but I know that, if I vote for Donald Trump or if I don’t vote for anyone, that I will perhaps be contributing to the possibility of increasing repression over the next decade.”

Without outright endorsing Clinton, Davis concluded her remarks with “There is one river that we have to cross next month, and let’s cross that river so that we will be able to begin the process of building a movement that will transform in a revolution[ary] manner the entire society of the United States of America.” Davis was followed by a performance from Dave Matthews and later Carlos Santana.

Sunday’s festivities brought in more people and capped off with a finale that featured Wanda Sykes, Michael K. Williams, Hill Harper, Chris Tucker and Glover, who served as the night’s emcee. Common returned to the stage to perform the Oscar-winning song “Glory” with John Legend. And Maxwell, who was introduced by Rosario Dawson, did an always rousing rendition of “This Woman’s Work” and a tribute to Prince, whose protest concert for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, he shared, was the catalyst for him meeting Belafonte and creating new music.

Of course, Belafonte also took the stage. He recalled his induction into civil rights activism by MLK in Atlanta, who called upon him and others “to go around the country recruiting students to come South to register African Americans who did not have the right to vote.” For the first time since a stroke robbed him of his singing voice 12 years ago, Belafonte publicly performed a new composition. The song, “Those Three Are on My Mind,” is a memorial to Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner—the three civil rights workers, all under 25, who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 by a lynch mob orchestrated by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for daring to register black Mississippians to vote.

As Belafonte prepared to leave the stage, he made a sobering observation, using the massive prison population filled with black and Latino bodies to underscore his point: “All that’s been said about the great progress that America is making does not articulate the price we’ve paid for that perceived progress. Sadly, the enemy does not sleep. The nation’s moral compass is broken.”