Harry Belafonte Birthday Tribute

In celebration of his 90th birthday, Tavis pays tribute to the legendary actor and activist.

Harry Belafonte is an American singer, songwriter, actor and social activist. One of the most successful African-American pop stars in history, he was dubbed the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s. His breakthrough album Calypso is the first million selling LP by a single artist. Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing "The Banana Boat Song", with its signature lyric "Day-O". He has recorded in many genres and has also starred in several films, most notably in Otto Preminger's hit musical Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun and Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow . Belafonte was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s confidants. Throughout his career he has been an advocate for political and humanitarian causes, such as the anti-apartheid movement and USA for Africa. Since 1987 he has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. In recent years he has been a vocal critic of the policies of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations. Harry Belafonte also acts as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues. Belafonte has won three Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. In 1989 he received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994. In 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy’s 6th Annual Governors Awards. Belafonte celebrates his 90th birthday on March 1, 2017.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight we celebrate Harry Belafonte’s 90th birthday. The award-winning singer, actor and author has been a guest on this program numerous times over our 14 seasons. We will revisit some of those memorable appearances as well as celebrate his life as an artist and an activist.

We are glad you’ve joined us. A special 90th birthday tribute to Harry Belafonte in just a moment.

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Tavis: Harry Belafonte is a cultural icon whose groundbreaking albums have solidified his place in music history. Last week, an anthology of his music was released called “The Legacy of Harry Belafonte: When Colors Come Together”. Mr. B. was the first artist of any race or gender to sell one million records with his hit album, “Calypso”.

He has won three Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy and a Tony. In 2014, he received an honorary Oscar making him one of an elite group of performers who have achieved EGOT status, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony.

But he’s also known for his longtime and passionate commitment to civil and human rights issues. During his first appearance on this program back in 2004, I asked the then 76-year-old about his continued commitment to advocacy and to coming to this nation as the son of immigrants.

Tavis: How have you been, man?

Harry Belafonte: Not bad. A little overly active, I think, but it’s really doing things that I have great interest in, like I feel a great sense of urgency about the time in which we live.

I figured that by the time I’d reach the three-quarter of a century mark, I’d have long since either been dead and gone or lying on a beach somewhere just being nostalgic. But, in fact, there’s just so much to be done that I find that such luxuries are not affordable.

Tavis: We’ve talked any number of times over the years, but I’ve never had a chance — at least I didn’t take the chance, I should say — to ask you how your coming to this nation as the son of immigrants shapes or shades your world view and your opinion of what America or what she ought to be. How much of that has determined or is part and parcel of your having come to this country as the son of immigrants?

Belafonte: A great deal of it, especially since I’ve come to know through Nelson Mandela and through Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt and others who are in my life that we are not an isolated island. The United States of America is part of a planet and everything that happens on this planet has serious ramifications to our own vital interests as well as our external interests.

As an immigrant, I’m no different than most first-generation born Americans who know life through the eyes and through the prisms of their immigrant experience, whether it were the Jews or the Irish who came here during the Irish Rebellion and the potato famine, whether it were Russians that came here.

Whoever comes to this country brings with them a history and a story about why America means not only so much to us, but why you would like to shape America to be the promise that we were told America holds for all of us.”

Tavis: Mr. B.’s close and abiding friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was at the forefront of a special week of shows in 2008 from Memphis commemorating the 40th anniversary of King’s death.

During this next clip, he shared a rare glimpse of King’s humor with a story about that amazing week in February 1968 when Johnny Carson handed The Tonight Show over to Mr. B. I also asked him to take me back to when, where and how he first met Dr. King.

Tavis: All right, so you’re sitting in for Johnny Carson for a week on The Tonight Show. And because of their friendship, only Harry Belafonte could get Dr. King. He didn’t do this. Only Mr. B. could get Dr. King to sit down for a conversation on The Tonight Show. King flies from Atlanta to New York.

He’s running late, trying to get to the show which is live. He lands at the airport, and I’ll let Mr. B pick the story up and take it all the way through to the joke that he told opening the show. You take it and run with it. You remember this, don’t you?

Belafonte: Yes, I do.

Tavis: All right, tell the story. I love it.

Belafonte: By the time we went on air, Dr. King had not arrived. So we made quick adjustment to fill his slot and how we could cover the spot. About a quarter of the way into the show, Dr. King showed up, so we could go back to Plan A.

And when he came on air, he didn’t give me a chance to do very much but hug him and greet him. He sat and he said, “I must beg your forgiveness for consternation and the cause of anxiety here, but I’ve had my own experience.

I left Atlanta late, the plane was late, I got to the airport, I got into the cab, the driver recognized me and he said, “What are you doing in town”? I told him that I was late coming for this broadcast with you. All he had to hear was that I was late. That man hit the gas and took me on a drive that was the most nervous experience of my life.

He zoomed in and out of traffic and I had to tap him on the shoulder and said, “Sir, if you don’t mind, I appreciate your sense of urgency, but I’d rather be known as Martin Luther King late than the late Martin Luther King.” [laugh]

Tavis: Told brilliantly. King tells that story on The Tonight Show, and the joke killed.

Belafonte: Absolutely.

Tavis: It gave people a rare glimpse at a man that you knew up close who was actually rather funny.

Belafonte: But it gave me an opportunity to lead into a question that was rebroadcast several times because I asked him in fact how did he feel about death? Did he fear for his life? And he took that moment to reveal for the first time before a large American audience that he had come to peace with the idea of death. “Dr. King, do you fear for your life?”

Martin Luther King: I’m more concerned about doing a good job, doing something for humanity and what I consider the will of God than about longevity. Ultimately, it isn’t so important how long you live. The important thing is how well you live.”

Tavis: Take me all the way back to when, where and how you first Martin King.

Belafonte: I was in New York and I got a call. This was in the early 1950s, mid-1950s. When I answered the phone, he asked for me and I said I was speaking and he said, “This is Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know if you know me, but I welcome the opportunity to chat with you.”

I said, “Well, I think there’s hardly any Black person in America that doesn’t know you” because it was just at the dawning of the Montgomery campaign. But he was coming to New York to speak to the ecumenical community and he was doing it at the Abyssinia Baptist Church. Adam Clayton Powell was alive then and he was the pastor.

And he said, “Before or after that, if we could meet for just a few minutes, I’d appreciate it.” So I went to hear him speak and I was quite taken with his oratory. And we went downstairs into the basement of the church and what was supposed to have been just about 20 minutes lasted in the vicinity of four hours.

And in that time, I had heard a voice and was privileged to enter into a mind that held great substance and deeply attracted me. And I left that room knowing that I’d be in his service as long as service was required. Now like many, I thought that our journey would be fairly brief.

I had no idea that simple act of a Black woman sitting on a bus and a country preacher emerging from the ranks of a little unknown place would have had such universal consequence. But the entire of the rest of his life, there’s hardly a day that we didn’t speak and have some business to take care of.”

Tavis: And take care of business, they did. Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the civil rights movement. He provided financial backing for SNCC and participated in numerous rallies and protests, including, of course, the March on Washington.

But civil rights is just part and parcel of his larger life’s work for human rights. In the 80s, he helped organize We Are The World, the anthem for famine relief in Africa, that raised millions of dollars and became an international hit with featured vocalists by such music greats as Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Diana Ross and The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.

Mr. B. was also involved in the anti-apartheid movement. During our tribute to Nelson Mandela, he shared what made their relationship uniquely different from all the other friendships he’d made during the struggle, and he discussed a special role that he played in Madiba’s first visit to the U.S.

Tavis: What makes Mandela so uniquely different?

Belafonte: I think it was the fact that of all the people that I have been privileged to serve, Nelson Mandela was the one that I least suspected that I’d ever come to meet personally or to know. I tried several times while he was incarcerated to be given the privilege of visiting him, but the apartheid system would not permit that.

I started corresponding with Mr. Mandela while he was in prison. I had come to be aware of him through my mentor, the man whom I most admired and still do, Paul Robeson. Paul Robeson was very close to King Lutili who was a leader against the apartheid system in the early days of its presence in South Africa,. and Lutili was the first Black man to ever receive the Nobel Prize.

Looking at South Africa from that prison, I then began to become more aware of what the African National Congress, the ANC, was doing and what its leadership was aspiring to, to make decisions that would help us support the struggle the peoples of South Africa were experiencing in resisting apartheid.

Tavis: It’s one thing to work alongside Dr. King as you did so courageously, but with regard to Mandela for 27 years, certainly he was behind bars. What do you recall most principally about working alongside one of the stalwart leaders of this movement to end apartheid when he himself for most of that time was behind bars?

Belafonte: It was a very touching and a very exciting and rewarding experience. Often I went to visit a man by the name of Oliver Tambo who had been selected by the leadership of the ANC to lead the ANC during Mandela’s incarceration.

So for all of intent and purpose, Oliver Tambo was the head of the ANC, was the one that was given the power and the authority to give instructions to the rest of us who were in the service of that cause. So I often heard Mandela’s voice very clearly through the things that Oliver Tambo was doing. It became apparent that we were closer and closer to the time when Mandela would be in all probability freed.

Many of us looked at that with a great sense of hope that that would be the case, but I never thought I’d live long enough to see Mandela released from prison. When he was released, I was then instructed by the ANC and by Oliver Tambo to help them prepare for Madiba’s first visit to the United States.

And in that capacity, I was able to not only correspond with Winnie Mandela and with Nelson himself through mail, but to also set up the kind of environment that would be most rewarding for his visit to the United States. He came here and I was charged with the responsibility of meeting all of the demands that were made upon us for Madiba’s visit here.”

Tavis: When his memoir, “My Song”, was published in 2011, he joined us for a conversation. In that conversation, we discussed how poverty defines him, the price he pays for being a man of conscience, that unique voice, and his approach to music.

Belafonte: I was born into poverty and, as I said in the book, it was my expectation that I would always know it. What I’ve opted to do is that since I have escaped the harshness of the economic bounds of poverty, I have stayed very connected to it spiritually.

Because everything that I need to talk about, everything that I need to reveal, to continually engage and bounce off of, resides in poverty. I’m very familiar with it. I find it easy to be with, whether I’m in America or in Africa or in Asia. Wherever I go and find the environment of those who are living in poverty and resisting poverty is a place in which I have great comfort.

And in that environment, I find great inspiration. Many of the men and women whom I admire as artists, the things they write, the songs they sing, the admission is filled with inspired moments to overcome oppression.

I don’t find that on Wall Street. I don’t find that in Beverly Hills. I don’t find that in places where opportunity resides unbridled, and I think the real creative energy and the real juice is in where people are caught in this economic abyss.

I am who I am despite the obstacles that we have all faced based upon race and based upon social and spiritual humiliation. I am not here because I’m inspired by what great presidents have not done or done, as the case may be.

I’m here because I come from a sense of struggle, a sense of using the instruments that were given to me to manipulate the environment in which I found myself, and joined up with those who are equally as skillful at manipulating that environment, as was I.

I think America offers a dream that cannot be fulfilled as easily anywhere else in the world as it could be fulfilled here. Great men, Dr. Du Bois or Dr. King or others, really saw in America opportunity that did not reside quite the same elsewhere.

Opportunities for Black people in Africa were really quite different under the colonial oppression that Africans experienced, just as it was quite different for those who grew up in the Caribbean. Although oppression was common to all of us, those styles of oppression gave us the opportunity to see the world in dimensions we didn’t quite see growing up in any one place.

I think being born in America and growing up exclusively within the American boundaries of race and race oppression is a very different experience for those of us who grew up under the boundaries of race and race experience in the Caribbean or for those who grew up in Africa.

If I can change America and change American foreign policy and help get people into office who will bring a moral mission as well as spiritual insight into what they should be doing politically, we sit in the place where the opportunity for change resides in its most powerful sense. The dynamic of what we can do to make change is unlike the dynamic that anyplace else could boast of.

Tavis: But pushing America in that way, to your mind, makes you a greater patriot, or in the minds of others, an ingrate?

Belafonte: I don’t dwell too much on the minds of others [laugh].

Tavis: There’s the Harry Belafonte I know [laugh].

Belafonte: I went about my life approaching music not from the point of view of a singer, but from the point of view of an actor. That’s how I first started to sing. I had a part. It was required that the guy sing and, when I found out how to approach it from the acting point, the subtext, all this stuff, and I did it, it was resounding, the rewards that came from that practice.

So everything I went after in my musical career was really based upon how I approached a song as an actor, not because of the power of my musical instrument.

However, having said that, what I delighted in was the fact that so many people found what I did to be so attractive. And the way to really know about me as a performer would require that you see me in the theater as opposed to hearing me on record.

And I think that what you see in the theater is an arc of the experience that’s revealed musically that really talks about my life, about the songs that I’ve chosen to sing, the protest songs, the songs that embrace other race, the songs in many languages that I sing, not too unlike the influence that Robeson put on me because he sang 22 languages, wrote and read them and sang in them.

I saw the appreciation from global audiences because he did that. I did the same thing. When I went to Japan, I sang in Japanese. When I went to Greece, I sang in Greek. When I went to Spain, I sang in Spanish [laugh]. I couldn’t speak it very well, but I sang. I was beautiful in singing it. These things just constantly attracted people to the uniqueness of who I was and the way in which I performed.

As a consequence, that served a political end, which was to make me completely independent of the economics and the way in which life was designed for the artist in America. They’re all deeply dependent on how Wall Street defines us, and the banks define us, and commodity defines us, and what industry says. Whether General Motors likes us or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes likes us, you are equated as an artist based upon the likes and dislikes of those powers.

How you get around them, how you so I went directly to people and maintained a people relationship so that no matter what they did to me, would blacklist and I couldn’t get on the air, or for 10 years I couldn’t find a movie, I would go to Paris, the theaters were filled. I’d go to Hong Kong, theaters were filled. I’d go to Lagos, theaters were filled.

Wherever I went, there was always an audience, and I defied being touched by the instruments of denial that was in the hands of the power elite. So if a sponsor didn’t like me, I could care less.

What you’re asking me to do is to give up what I believe in, which I believe to be not only morally correct but I think spiritually most desired, and to give that up in order to be anointed by your product, there’s no bargain here. I said, well, I’ll just be who I am, voice or no voice [laugh].

Tavis: Mr. B. has used his voice at home and around the world for more than a half century, always courageously speaking truth. As an artist, his mandate is to show life not as it is, but as it should be. And as a citizen of this country, his mandate is to bring criticism and dissention to the table so that another point of view might be heard. In the political climate that we now find ourselves, I’m reminded of Mr. B.’s insightful words on this program just one day after Barack Obama was elected president.

Belafonte: Well, I think of all the people in this country who have earned the right to celebrate, none have earned that right more than the African American community. However, it is not a stand-alone community, and I think that we have been here before.

When slavery was overthrown, the great Civil War, and we went into the post-Civil War period and elected Black officials to our Congress and our Senate, it’s not too long after that that we introduced 100 years of apartheid. The cruelest and the most oppressive segregation system known to the world was introduced and lingered.

We’ve had other occasions when at the end of the Second World War when we all came back with a great sense of hope for America’s future and the fact that we defeated fascism and that White Supremacy should have no place in the mix of civil society.

We went into this period of McCarthyism and Emmet Till and all the violence and all of the pain and oppression that evoked the need and the hope for a Dr. King who came to serve us.

So I think that, although we’ve earned the right to celebrate and we should celebrate, I think we must also understand that we’ve been here before and now is the time when we’re most required to be vigilant, the most required to stay the course, because this thing that we have just achieved could be easily taken away from us.”

Tavis: Mr. Belafonte’s words nearly 10 years ago remind us of the importance of staying active, whether it’s supporting the next generation of young leaders campaigning for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries or serving as honorary co-chair for the Women’s March on Washington with Gloria Steinem. At 90, Mr. B. continues to lead the charge by example.

So tonight, we celebrate not only one of America’s greatest entertainers, but one of our most profoundly influential activists and an American hero. Happy birthday, Mr. B. Here’s to many more years of art and defiance. Goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.


Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: March 1, 2017 at 2:38 pm