TOPICS > Arts

Harry Belafonte Reflects on Life as a Singer, Actor and Activist

November 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Harry Belafonte is not only a musical icon, but also a lifelong political and social activist. Gwen Ifill talks with Belafonte about his life as a singer, actor and civil rights activist.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a conversation with a musical icon and lifelong political and social activist.  

Gwen Ifill has that.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: At 84, Harry Belafonte has already lived several lives, as an actor, a television personality, a movie star and as a high-profile civil rights activist.

HARRY BELAFONTE, Singer/Actor/Civil Rights Activist (singing): I took a trip on a sailing ship, and when I reached Jamaica, I made a stop.

GWEN IFILL: His singing shaped a musical consciousness for generations of Americans, from traditional folk music and spirituals to Caribbean calypso and protest songs.

And his activism took him to the front lines of the civil rights movement, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., lobbying for the release of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela, and joining other stars to raise money to ease famine in Africa.

He has now written it all down in “My Song.”

I sat down with him recently at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Harry Belafonte, thank you for talking with us.

HARRY BELAFONTE: I’m so tickled to be here.

GWEN IFILL: You define yourself as an actor and a singer and an activist. Put those in order for us.

HARRY BELAFONTE: I was an activist who became an artist.

And my activism really started the day of my birth, born from immigrant parents in New York City. My mother was overwhelmed by America. She came here with hopes and ambitions that were never fulfilled. And she was bringing children into the world at an age that was much too young.

And although she stayed the course and treated us with great dignity and care, it overwhelmed her. And she took us back to the West Indies to have us raised by the village and the family that she grew up in. And at the — in 1939, I came back. And during that time, there was a lot of talk about white supremacy and Hitler and democracy, and America was mobilizing for this great campaign.

And the whole world was caught up in it. And we were listening to people Paul Robeson and Dr. Du Bois and others speaking about the black relationship to this world struggle. And I was just filled with this stuff in our community. So it was nothing to walk down the street any day and see Robeson or Joe Louis or Dr. Du Bois in Harlem.

So, our role models were always there. And by the time I came up on the idea of being an artist, I brought with me this mission of activism. And what attracted me to the arts was the fact that I saw theater as a social force, as a political force. I kind of felt that art was a powerful tool and that’s what I should be doing with mine.

GWEN IFILL: Your options could have been jazz and pop. You know, you were bigger than Elvis at one point, people forget. But instead, you chose world music and calypso and folk songs, protest music.

Did you consciously choose that?

HARRY BELAFONTE: I eventually consciously chose it, because, since I didn’t sound like Ella Fitzgerald and didn’t have anywhere near her musical impeccability, and listening her do pop music and do jazz was the quintessential goal for any artist. And I looked at her and said, I’m on the wrong end of this business.

GWEN IFILL: How did you get to know Martin Luther King Jr., and how did that relationship progress?

HARRY BELAFONTE: Dr. King called me. And he said that he had heard about me and that he heard that I was an artist with a deep sense of social commitment, and that he wanted to talk to me because he was trying to recruit forces to help him on this mission that was overwhelming him.

He said: “I have this charge. I have this responsibility. I’m not quite sure I know where I’m going or how I’m going to handle it. But I do know one thing. I need to do it in the context of friends and people around me who could help us move this monster along the highway of life.”

And as we spoke sitting down in the basement of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, I listened to him. And I was deeply moved by what he had to say. I knew at the end of our meeting that I would be in his service.

GWEN IFILL: Does he have a legacy that survives now in 2011?

HARRY BELAFONTE: I believe there’s no question about that. And I think that when you go to North Africa and you see what’s going on, you would be amazed how many of the young people talk about Dr. King, talk about nonviolence, what Americans did.

And the fact that nonviolence is central to all these current upheavals, including here in the United States, one can say that the legacy didn’t die.

GWEN IFILL: In your life, you have bonded with world leaders who are considered hostile to the United States, including Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

And I wonder whether that, in retrospect, has helped or hurt your cause.

HARRY BELAFONTE: I would rather have done without the flak, but knowing what my mission has been and how I feel, I’m not sorry that I have met any of these men, that we have had exchanges and encounters.

I don’t approve of everything they have ever done, but I think talking to them is the best thing we could do and should do. I think we have a failed foreign policy, and any private citizen who can evoke his rights to go out and talk and try to maintain some equilibrium with peoples who have really done us no harm — although I have taken a lot of heat for what I have said, I said everything that I did consciously.

I expected heat. That kind of gave me a platform to speak about things that nobody wanted to talk about. And I’m very proud that I did those things. And I think in the end, most of the people who were demonized as communists and anti-Americans, one of them being Dr. King — we now have a holiday.

When I worked with Nelson Mandela in his earliest years in prison, and working with ANC in the liberation of South Africa — he was considered one of the great terrorists of the world. So my company hasn’t been all that bad. I think those who anointed me as being villainous and not a patriot have to — they have to go back and exam history again.

GWEN IFILL: The book is “My Song.”

I want to end this by reading to you something you wrote at the end of the book. You said: “I was a good singer, but I wasn’t the best. And I had known that from the start. I’d had to rely on my acting. And in the end, I could make a case that I was the greatest actor in the world. I had convinced everyone I could sing.”

Was that a trick? Did you just convince us you could sing?

HARRY BELAFONTE: No, because the first time I ever started singing for the public was in a play written by John Steinbeck called “Of Mice and Men.” And they had a character that was the balladeer. And he sang the songs of the period, which was the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Here I was singing Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, but as an actor, not looking to life as a — singing and a career. And then when I decided to get back to singing or to take it on as my goal, I remembered everything that I did as an actor. And every song I have ever approached, I approached with the drama that was inherent in the lyrics and how it would impact upon the audience emotionally.

In “The Banana Boat,” I came from the Caribbean, “Day-O,” which was the biggest song ever in the world. If you don’t believe me, just ask any game at Yankee Stadium and see what the fans have to say.

But here was a song about struggle, about black people in a colonized life doing the most grueling work. And I took that song and honed it into an anthem that the world loved. And Paul Robeson once said to me — when he heard me in my earliest years, said get them to sing your song, they will want to know who you are.

And I woke up one day and the whole world was singing “Banana Boat.” And I didn’t really understand how powerful I was until I stood before an audience of 50,000 Japanese trying to sing “Day-O.”

(LAUGHTER)

HARRY BELAFONTE: And I was like, yes, I have arrived.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Well, I would say you have managed over the years to sing your song.

Harry Belafonte, thank you very much.

HARRY BELAFONTE: Thank you very, very much.