Hill Harper against a blue background
Actor and author Hill Harper spoke to a standing-room only crowd at Wayne County Community College District’s downtown campus Tuesday about the legacy of Harry Belafonte and the role of artists as agents of social change. (Shutterstock)

Actor, author and businessman Hill Harper appears closer to announcing his candidacy for a Michigan U.S. Senate seat.

Amid speculation of his potential 2024 bid, the “Letters to a Young Brother” author was the guest of honor Tuesday at a public forum moderated by journalist and cultural critic Bankole Thompson on the Wayne County Community College District’s downtown campus. After the event, representatives for Harper circulated a “Hill Harper For Michigan” volunteer sign-up sheet to the standing-room only crowd.

The forum, however, was not an official campaign launch, but held to honor the legacy of Harry Belafonte and discuss the artists’ obligations to help advance social equality. Belafonte, who died in April at 96-years-old, was a singer, songwriter, performer, actor— and perhaps more importantly, an activist. He rose to prominence in the 1950s. His album “Calypso,” which included hit records “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell,” is recognized as the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies. His success led to ground-breaking roles in film, and he became the first Black American to win an Emmy Award. Belafonte performed in Detroit about 50 times during his career, with his last performance being at the Detroit Opera House in 2001, according to The Concert Database. 

But more important than his flourishing career was Belafonte’s quest for racial equality.

He was a fierce supporter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, so much so that his active fundraising for Dr. King helped turn him into one of the most prominent celebrities involved in the movement; it also threatened his career.  

“He told me that he lost so many jobs because of the stances he took,” Harper told the crowd during the Tuesday event, recalling the time he met Belafonte – whom he calls “King Harry” – at an “Artists and Activism” panel during the NAACP’s annual convention in 2011. “He lost millions, and millions, and millions of dollars.”

Belafonte’s activism expanded beyond the U.S. In 1985, he was arrested in South Africa while protesting the apartheid outside the Embassy. In his later years, he expressed dissatisfaction with today’s artists, who he believed weren’t willing to risk their fame and fortune like he did to fight for social justice and equality. At that NAACP convention, Harper learned that he was one of the artists Belafonte felt wasn’t doing enough.

“He wanted people to fight, and he felt folks weren’t fighting,” Harper said.

Harper, however, didn’t put the burden solely on the shoulders of the artists, or the so-called Black elites. To illustrate his point that it’s a two-way street, he used the degradation of mainstream hip-hip as an example. He noted Tuesday that during its beginnings in the ‘80s and early 90s, artists such as Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Paris promoted celebration and power before the record industry ushered in a different, more violent, and misogynistic type of music. 

“But here’s the problem – we bought into it,” Harper told attendees. “I’m not judging the artists who make that music. I’m judging us for allowing the record industry to pimp us for our dollar, feeding us stuff that’s negative.”

Harper told the crowd “we must recognize our power,” arguing Black people have the collective power and money to change everything from the music industry and prison systems to elections.  

“King Harry would be appalled by the fact that for the first time in 57 years, there’s not a Black Democratic representative in Congress from Michigan,” he said. “We talk about things going backwards— it happened on our watch though.” 

Harper is eyeing the seat long held by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who announced in January that she was retiring.  Some prominent Democrats to declare campaigns are U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who represents Ingham County and central Michigan, former state Rep. Leslie Love of Detroit and state Board of Education President Pamela Pugh.

Harper noted Tuesday that mass organizing, which leads to higher voter turnout, would give Wayne County residents — especially Detroiters — stronger political power. It is expected that if Harper runs for U.S. senate, he would do so as a Democrat. 

Known for his roles on ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and CBS’s “CSI: NY,” Harper moved to Detroit in 2016 and opened The Roasting Plant coffee shop on Woodward. He is coming off attending this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. 

Tuesday’s forum was a part of WCCCD’s Global Conversations Speaker Series hosted by Thompson. 

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