“Artists are the gatekeepers of truth,” Harry Belafonte said onstage Thursday night at the Berklee Performance Center. The 87-year-old performer and civil rights activist, who was on hand to receive an honorary doctorate, explained that it was Paul Robeson who said that to the young, then-unknown Belafonte.
No artist has worked harder on behalf of truth and social justice than Belafonte. He bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from a Birmingham, Ala., jail; was John F. Kennedy’s cultural ambassador to the Peace Corps; and helped raise more than $50 million for humanitarian aid in Africa by organizing the recording of “We Are the World.”
That is how the current generation of Berklee College of Music students knows the singer, said Larry Watson, the professor who produced the show, introducing a rousing encore of the song. But to an earlier generation — long before Michael Jackson crowned himself the King of Pop — Belafonte was the “King of Calypso.” He was the first recording artist to sell a million copies of a single album, and he had enduring hits with “Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song” (that’s “Day O” to fans of “Beetlejuice” or “The Muppet Show”), both of which were part of the program presented by four dozen or so colorfully attired students.
The songs covered a dizzying range of 20th-century styles associated with the guest of honor, from the show ballad “Try to Remember” and a jazzy version of Lead Belly’s “Cotton Fields” (with a fantastic scat vocal by student Elliot Skinner) to a “Tribute to ‘Beat Street’ Rap,” which acknowledged the early hip-hop film that Belafonte coproduced.
When the singer took the stage in a graduation gown, Berklee president Roger H. Brown noted that the Belafonte name “literally means ‘a fountain of beautiful things.’ ” In a voice grown raspy with age, Belafonte recalled his first performance as a singer, when a few ringers, including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, climbed onstage to accompany him.
“I looked around at my backup band,” he said, “and I haven’t looked back since.” He has been honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, and many other accolades. But the Berklee doctorate is especially meaningful for a high school dropout, he said, joking with a broad grin, “I’m going home after this and smoke a joint.”