What does it mean to be an artist? Legendary entertainer and activist, Harry Belafonte, says artists are “gatekeepers to the truth” and it is this principle that is at the heart of his social justice organization Sankofa.
The nonprofit, founded by Belafonte in 2013, has released a 17-minutes long protest film, entitled “17.” The film makes its debut on Tidal (although free to view) today and elsewhere next week. It follows the story of Jacobi Nelson, a fictional character inspired by high profile cases of young black boys under the age of 18, gunned down by either police, vigilantes, or others. In particular, it draws on the death of Trayvon Martin, aged 17, almost five years ago. The soundtrack features music by Ty Dolla $ign (No Justice), Grammy-winning Raphael Saadiq (The Answer), Mali Music (Drama) and Elijah Blake (Hanging Tree).
The new film comes after a previous shorter piece, “Up Against the Wall”, which featured Michael K. Williams and Danny Glover. Both films were created by Miami-based Bush/Renz. Co-director Gerard Bush explains why a longer format was chosen this time. “We felt that it was crucial to transform a statistic into a human story by harnessing the incredible power of music married to visual,” he says. “’17’ demands your attention for almost 20 minutes – that is a commitment in time, yes, but in its wake you’re left pondering a good many questions about one’s own personal perceptions, when it comes to the issue of race and culture.”
Bush says that in working through the creative process with Mr. Belafonte and Sankofa, it was imperative to provide a complete picture of what could be any average black teenage boy in America, on any typical summer day and just how quickly life can be cut short. He says, “The prism through which we experience each other dictates too often how we treat one another and for far too many young black kids, that perception, that prism of racial bias, can prove deadly.”
The work precedes an album, which will include John Legend, Sting and Andra Day, among others. Sankofa’s overarching strategy is to become a platform and entertainment enterprise, which, Bush says, will work with cutting edge writers, directors and artists to lend their support, through their work, in order to engage the public in an effort to catalyze sustained and meaningful change. The organization staged a music and arts festival, “Many Rivers To Cross” in Atlanta last year, and plans to hold this event annually. The aim is that Sankofa will provide myriad opportunities for artists and activists to connect, create and help change the world together.
The strategy is driven by Belafonte’s vision of the artist’s function in society. “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth,” says Belafonte. “Their work is grounded in mission. We have a shared goal of using the gift of art to communicate a message. An entertainer means to distract, an artist means to inform.”