Harry Belafonte (left), Kojo Nnamdi, and Julian Bond in the studio at WAMU 88.5 following the first hour of The Kojo Nnamdi Show in which Harry Belefonte was interviewed about his new book "My Song: A Memoir," with Michael Shnayerson on Wednesday, November 2, 2011.

Harry Belafonte (left), Kojo Nnamdi, and Julian Bond in the studio at WAMU 88.5 following the first hour of The Kojo Nnamdi Show in which Harry Belefonte was interviewed about his new book "My Song: A Memoir," with Michael Shnayerson on Wednesday, November 2, 2011.

His 1956 album Calypso was the first LP ever to sell a million copies, and his celebrity status parlayed to the stage and screen. For more than fifty years he’s used that star power to fight injustice, from segregation in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa. The legendary performer and outspoken civil rights activist joins Kojo to reflect on his career and the political and humanitarian causes that drive him today.


  • Harry Belafonte Singer, songwriter, actor, social activist; Author of "My Song: A Memoir," with Michael Shnayerson(Knopf, 2011)

Show Video

In light of the Occupy Wall Street protests, Harry Belafonte makes the point that people initially underestimated the power of Rosa Parks’ actions at the beginning of the civil rights movement. “In the humblest places resides the power of the miracle,” Belafonte said:

Harry Belafonte talks with Kojo about how he got into singing and his very first days performing at “The Royal Roost” with the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis:

Danny Kaye and Harry Belafonte – Hava Naguila:


  • 12:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Harry Belafonte is one of the few performers who can truly be called a legend. His 1956 album "Calypso" made him the first artist in history to sell more than a million LPs. He starred in dozens of films and won both a Tony and an Emmy. He's dined with presidents and sung for royalty. But as a longtime human rights activist, he's also never been afraid to stir things up. He's been at the forefront of some of the most notable causes of the past century.

  • 12:07:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIA friend of Martin Luther King Jr., he was instrumental in organizing the march on Washington. In response to hunger in Africa, he brought together music's biggest stars to record the song "We are the World." He fought apartheid in South Africa and welcomed Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. And if you think he might have considered slowing down after so many decades of limelight and activism, well, you'd be wrong. He's got a new memoir and a documentary about his life and projects launching for causes close to his heart.

  • 12:08:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHarry Belafonte joins us in studio. He's a singer, songwriter, actor and social activist. His memoir with Michael Shnayerson is called "My Song." Harry Belafonte, so good to have you here.

  • 12:08:31

    MR. HARRY BELAFONTEAt long last.

  • 12:08:32

    NNAMDIFor me.

  • 12:08:33

    BELAFONTEI'm a big fan of yours...

  • 12:08:35

    NNAMDII have been...

  • 12:08:36

    BELAFONTE...and I've been listening to you for a long time.

  • 12:08:38

    NNAMDII am a fan of yours for longer than you know. It really started for me on a rainy winter's night in Harlem, in January of 1976, my intense interest in Harry Belafonte. I've been listening to him and seeing him on screen since I was a child in Guyana, South America, and knew of his talent. But on that night, I saw him speak at the funeral of a remarkable man, my father's hero and ultimately my own hero, Paul Robeson.

  • 12:09:47

    NNAMDIHarry Belafonte, I was fascinated to read in your memoir that you said that, from the very first moment you met Paul Robeson, you decided that you would pattern your whole life after Paul Robeson. How did you meet him, and why did you make that decision?

  • 12:10:06

    BELAFONTEIt was at the end of the Second World War. Many of us hade come back and looking for where to engage our lives and what to do. And my skills amounted to the ability to be able to be a very efficient janitor's assistant. And one day, doing a repair in a building, I was offered two tickets as a gratuity to go visit a little theater in Harlem, the basement of the Schomburg library, called the American Negro Theater. And when I went to this theater, I saw a play called "Home is the Hunter." And when the curtain rose and I looked to players, I just -- for me, it was an epiphany.

  • 12:10:56

    BELAFONTEI just got totally caught up and swept away with the energy, with the purpose, with the intensity, with the glory of the spoken word and what these actors were doing. And here is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. And in that process, we eventually did a play called "Juno and the Paycock," written by an Irish playwright by the name of Sean O'Casey. And at the end of that third night of that play, Robeson came to visit us.

  • 12:11:27

    BELAFONTEWe were all quite overwhelmed with the fact that this icon, this man of such remarkable achievements had come to our little square to see these young actors put forth their work. And he stayed at the end of the play and talked with us. And as he talked with us, he unfolded for us, and for me in particular, a sense that long -- I mean, way beyond what I thought the theater could be was what I saw him represent as a powerful force in the theater. And as I watched him, listened to him and studied him, I got caught up in his social activism.

  • 12:12:13

    BELAFONTEI got caught up in his political and philosophical point of view. I decided that this was my role model. This was somebody who I would like to emulate. This was someone who could help me carve out a purpose in life that was beyond anything I could have imagined. And so I became his loyal subject.

  • 12:12:39

    NNAMDIPaul Robeson, of course, sang and spoke in 22 languages. And for those of you who may be unfamiliar with his remarkable life and career, I would strongly advise that you look him up because it will help you to understand Harry Belafonte's life and his career. There was another seminal episode in your life that inspired you in much the same way that Paul Robeson did. You got your start on stage and singing in nightclubs.

  • 12:13:05

    NNAMDIBut in 1945, you played at a jazz club called the Royal Roost and had what you described as a life-changing experience for a few reasons. Can you tell us what happened that night in that club?

  • 12:13:19

    BELAFONTEWell, I've been a great fan of jazz, still am. And I was studying in a school directed by the New School of Social Research. It was a block-and-a-half away from the greatest jazz center in the universe, which was a nightclub called the Royal Roost. And night after night, all the young students from the drama workshop at the New School went down to this jazz joint, have a 25-cent bottle of beer. You could hang out at the bar and watch, until the wee hours of the morning, a parade of the greatest forces in modern music, modern jazz music.

  • 12:13:57

    BELAFONTEAnd night after night, looking at these artists, I just fell madly in love with everything about them. And one day, I had expressed my great difficulty in finding work as a black actor. Not much was around. And I'd become friendly with a lot of the musicians. And they had come to see me perform at one point in a play written by John Steinbeck, called "Of Mice and Men." And I happened to have had a role that required that I sing in the play.

  • 12:14:29

    BELAFONTEAnd the musicians saw that. Without much connectedness to anything, like becoming a professional singer, one night I was talking to them and telling them I couldn't find work. And one of them suggested that I should try singing and that perhaps I could get a job at the nightclub.

  • 12:14:51

    NNAMDINo training. You had no training as a singer.

  • 12:14:54

    BELAFONTENone whatsoever and no ambition as a singer, and I thought it was a lark and kind of an interesting play idea. But then I began to sing again. And Lester Young was the one who recommended to a man by the name of Monte Kay, who was the manager, that I should be given a shot. And Monte said okay. What was my repertoire like? And I said I don't have one. And he said, do you play an instrument? No, I don't. And, well, we had to really start from ground zero. I said, I'm afraid so.

  • 12:15:28

    BELAFONTESo he gave me a pianist by the name of Al Haig, which was one of the great geniuses of the day, along with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and others. And Al helped me bang out a set. And when I got up on the opening night, two weeks later, I was just supposed to have been singing with Al Haig. As I walked on the stage in the early hours of that night, before I could open my mouth, Max Roach stepped up and sat in on the drums. Tommy Potter picked up his bass and got into it. And Charlie Parker came up and hung his horn on his hook.

  • 12:16:09

    BELAFONTEAnd, once again, I was absolutely stunned that they'd all gotten up there. That was my backup band. And the first time I ever sang, that was -- I was with Al Haig, Charlie Parker. A little bit later, Miles Davis stepped in, somewhat reluctantly, but he didn't want to miss anything and didn't miss much anyway. But this was how I was launched into the music business.

  • 12:16:37

    NNAMDISome of the greats of any generation joined you in your initial appearance, and that caused you to make a decision about what you would do later in your life that you would always try to do the same thing for young artists.

  • 12:16:52

    BELAFONTEWell, the validation of these men, the generosity they showed me was deeply moving to me. It not only launched me and gave -- and they validated me. And they validated me to the audiences and to the reviewers and the people who came. I saw this other dimension to the power of art and the power of celebrity.

  • 12:17:16

    BELAFONTEAnd I just knew that any time I looked around and found somebody in need of a platform, I'd be there full throttle to help them get through. I use myself that way.

  • 12:17:28

    NNAMDITwo of the remarkable experiences in the life of the equally remarkable Harry Belafonte. He joins us in studio. He's a singer, songwriter, actor, social activist. He's got a memoir out. It is called "My Song." Your album "Calypso" was the first LP to sell over a million copies. It stayed on the charts for 99 weeks, the only album to do that until Michael Jackson's "Thriller" came along. That was a remarkable achievement. Did you realize, at the time, how remarkable it was?

  • 12:17:59

    BELAFONTENo. And what I most marveled at was the fact that there was an audience of that size that had an interest in what I was doing. And I remembered something Paul Robeson said to me. He said get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are. And for me to wake up one day and find out that the whole world was singing day-o, day-o, was really quite -- it was a little overwhelming. I didn't realize the vastness of the power of that moment until I was in Japan and watched 50,000 Japanese try to sing the "Banana Boat" song.

  • 12:18:42

    BELAFONTEIt was a trip. But I said, my God, look at the power of music, look what the song can do. And what I was mostly in tuned to was the fact that I had a platform, and I had all those ears. And what was I going to do with them beyond singing? And that was to deliver ideas and thoughts and a sense of the universe in which we lived and, to the best of my ability, to encourage people to take a look at the people in the world who struggled (unintelligible).

  • 12:19:13

    NNAMDIBut in order to do that, you had to follow Robeson's advice and let them know who you are, and a lot of people did not really know who you were when they heard the "Banana Boat" song.

  • 12:20:12

    NNAMDIThat song was based on traditional worker songs, which you knew well from the time you spent growing up in Jamaica and the time you spent with your father. But you found yourself fighting racial stereotyping each time you performed that song, even for the cover of the album "Calypso," which is what I mean by I say -- when I said you had to let them know who you were.

  • 12:20:36

    BELAFONTEWell, I don't think there was really any ill intent and a lot of things that people did that carried with it racial stereotypes. And it was endemic to the culture. It was deeply rooted in everyday's -- in anybody's everyday experience. And when this album was made, the art department at RCA did a caricature of me. And in it, they put me in very fluffy, well-embroidered shirt sleeves and gave me a bandana and had me trying to look like what they thought was the native West Indian. And I resisted that. They also decided to call the album "Calypso."

  • 12:21:22

    BELAFONTEAnd I resisted that idea because Calypso was an art form. It was a very special kind of music. And there was only one song in the album that I could call a calypso. But they insisted on using it as a marketing idea. It was very catchy, "Calypso," and they prevailed. Contractually, they had the power to do that. And then when they branded me, however, the king of calypso, I knew there was a whole culture and a whole ritual coming from Trinidad, not too far from where you were born in Guyana...

  • 12:21:57


  • 12:21:59

    BELAFONTE...and I just said, this is going to be an insult to a lot of people who live this culture, people who go through a whole ritual around carnival time. And everybody in the world gathers for the calypso competition. And if you write the best song that year and it's in carnival and it's selected, then, that year, you become the king of calypso. But I never went through such a ritual. A lot of the people in Trinidad began to resent the fact that I had somehow co-opted this title and hadn't earned it. So it took me a long time to win over Trinidadians. But it takes a long time for anybody to win over Trinidadians.

  • 12:22:38


  • 12:22:39

    BELAFONTEIt's even more difficult when they got a case against you. So, eventually, all turned out well. But each and every step of the way, there were always these nagging nuances of race. Some things were overtly cruel. Others were subliminally attached to a way of life that a lot of people grew up with, not suspecting that what they may be thinking or doing or saying was harmful to people of color.

  • 12:23:09

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Our guest is Harry Belafonte. His memoir is called "My Song." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments for Harry Belafonte, 800-433-8850. You can also send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can send a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Do you have a question for Harry Belafonte about his music, his movies or the causes with which he's been associated? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:25:42

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Harry Belafonte about his memoir and his life. His memoir is called "My Song," with Michael Shnayerson. Harry Belafonte is a singer, songwriter, actor and social activist. I want to get to the social activist in a second, but one more Caribbean reference. One of the songs you sang, "Mama, Look at Bubu," it was originally recorded by Lord Melody in Trinidad.

  • 12:26:05

    NNAMDIAnd I was listening to another song that Lord Melody had called "The Devil" in which he was referring to an individual that he met some place, who his children thought were the devil, and he said, no, that man is not the devil. He's simply a man who shaves his head in the style of Yul Brynner, or as he called him, Yul Brynner. And I remembered how, in the Caribbean, we had styles that we cultivated there that, when I came to the United States, nobody had heard of.

  • 12:26:35

    NNAMDIWe used to call what is called here a Windsor knot. In Guyana, we call it the Frank Sinatra knot. We call the bald hairstyle the Yul Brynner hairstyle. We had a hairstyle in Guyana called the Belafonte. Were you ever aware of that?

  • 12:26:51

    BELAFONTEYes. But not until long after the custom had blended away into the pages of history. But there were -- I once went to Jamaica, and I found four guys at the airport who knew I was landing with the (word?) ceremony. And they all showed up with this hairstyle...

  • 12:27:13

    NNAMDIThe indentations on the side.

  • 12:27:15

    BELAFONTEThat's right. And they were a quartet. And they were seeking to get my attention because they'd hoped I'd take them up as kind of a backup group. And when I looked at them, I asked them where did they get that hairstyle? That's when I heard story for the first time.

  • 12:27:32

    NNAMDIWe would walk into the barber shop and say, give me a Belafonte.

  • 12:27:35

    NNAMDIThey knew exactly what to do. Your celebrity status certainly helped you fight for causes in which you believe. But you didn't just support the Civil Rights movement. You participated and, at times, took great risk, like Mississippi, summer of 1964, you and your longtime friend Sydney Poitier. And it didn't turn out exactly the way you expected it to, especially not the way Sydney expected it to. I guess he was a little upset with you, right?

  • 12:28:08

    BELAFONTEWell, to say the least. But he was always there. He always stood strong. And when he was put upon to step to the plate and make a difference, he did that. In (word?), that was the time of the missing of three civil rights activist, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. They were down there on the Freedom Summer campaign to help black citizens in the south register to vote. And the Ku Klux Klan in the state of Mississippi took great exception to that fact and intimidated these young people and brutalized them every day that they were there.

  • 12:28:52

    BELAFONTEAnd when these three young activists were found missing, I was called from Mississippi in Greenwood, and I was asked to bring -- to help them find resources. Many of the students wanted to stay beyond the time they were -- that they had agreed to stay, and, in order for them to stay, they needed to have resources to house them and to get cars and equipment and to help support the registration.

  • 12:29:24

    BELAFONTEAnd the amount of money that they needed, in very short order, was quite substantial, and I went about raising the money. And then when we discovered that we had no delivery system because you couldn't send it by Western Union -- those at the other end of the end were people who ran these Western Union stations or post offices or whatnot could very easily be connected to the Ku Klux Klan or White Citizens' Council and do a lot of mischief.

  • 12:29:50

    BELAFONTESo we concluded that the best way to do it would be to go on down and deliver the money in person. And when I looked at what that meant, I kind of said, well, they may not have any qualms in doing something -- some harm to a celebrity, but they might find it more difficult trying to do something with two celebrities. That was the pattern. I called Sydney. And I said to Sydney on the phone, I said, hey, Syd, what are you doing this weekend?

  • 12:30:24

    BELAFONTESydney -- and if it was a case, he would say, oh, nothing, I'm off for something. What do you got in mind? And I -- or he would call me, and I'd say the same to him. But in this instance, I said to him, I'd like you to go away with me this weekend. I got to go south and do something. He said, oh, what are we going to do? I said, I got to go to Greenwood, Miss. He said, Greenwood, Miss.? I said, yeah. And there was this long silence.

  • 12:30:52

    BELAFONTEAnd then he said, what you going to be doing in Greenwood, Miss.? I said, I'm taking about $70,000 in a little black satchel down to the group in Greenwood in order to put fuel into the economic line for the work the young people were doing.

  • 12:31:08

    NNAMDIAnd the young people, of course, were the young people of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC.

  • 12:31:11

    BELAFONTEYeah, SNCC and others. There were several youth organizations, but SNCC led the campaign. And Sydney said, aha. And he said, you want me to go with you? I said, yeah. He paused. He said, listen, Belafonte, let me tell you something. I'll go with you, but if we come back and we get out of this and we come back, I want to tell you something. Never ever call me again.

  • 12:31:39

    NNAMDIAnd he was serious.

  • 12:31:41

    BELAFONTEHe was. But the experience was so overwhelming and so stimulating...

  • 12:31:46

    NNAMDIAnd he saw the young people from SNCC.

  • 12:31:48


  • 12:31:48

    NNAMDIHe was so moved.

  • 12:31:49

    BELAFONTEAnd the courage of those young gladiators. Anyway, Sydney and I, we talked many times after that. It didn't impair our friendship. As a matter of fact, it intensified it. But Sydney and I have done many things together, and that was just one of them.

  • 12:32:06

    NNAMDIMany people may not realize it that you were also instrumental in organizing the 1963 march on Washington. You were a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He stayed at your house whenever he was in New York. You also have the ear both of President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, and there were some problems leading up to that march.

  • 12:32:26

    NNAMDIOne of the things I find remarkable is not only how you invariably were able to call friends to raise money, but you were able to call friends, in this case, about the 1963 march on Washington. In order to help provide a kind of protective shield for the demonstrators, celebrities and movie stars would be there, and one in particular that you were, at first, somewhat reluctant to approach. But your friends and colleagues said, no, you got to get Charlton Heston. Talk about that.

  • 12:32:59

    BELAFONTEWell, the White House and the Kennedy administration was extremely anxious about the fact that they thought the march -- as they had been instructed by J. Edgar Hoover, who was the head of the FBI, that you let those people in this city, and you'll have chaos. You'll have mayhem. You'll have violence. You'll have riots all over the place. The nation's capital will be in great, great danger. And he pumped out enough information to give chapter and verses to what he had to substantiate those beliefs. Well, they were all false, not only as it turned out to prove him totally incorrect.

  • 12:33:38

    BELAFONTEBut it also manufactured a lot within the FBI files to suggest that we had infiltrators who were going to -- at the first instance, try to create violence and chaos. And my task was to try to convince Bobby Kennedy and the president that that was not the case. And although that it might have come from J. Edgar Hoover, who was considered to be the most informed spy in the world, I had to give them the evidence that things would be calm.

  • 12:34:11

    BELAFONTEOne of the ways I was to do that I thought would be to call upon the celebrity cultural community, the cultural community and its celebrities to have a presence at the march in Washington that would sooth any sense that people had -- that they would -- that there would be some extreme violence taking place. And I call upon Marlon Brando and a number of other of my friends, Burt Lancaster, and it was just -- James Garner and Paul Newman and Robert Ryan. And I can go on and on and on, and...

  • 12:34:46

    NNAMDIAnd you did.

  • 12:34:47

    BELAFONTEAnd then Dr. King was the one that said to me, these are our friends. Have you been able to get anybody from the opposition? I said, well, the only person I know actively in the opposition is Charlton Heston. He said, and have you asked him? And I said, no. He said, I think we should. So I called Charlton. And I went over to his house, and we talked for a couple of hours. And I convinced him that he needed to be present. And he co-chaired the California delegation on a special plane that we arranged to bring this huge armada of high-profiled artists, and they mingled with the crowd.

  • 12:35:25

    BELAFONTEWe arrived and got into a bus. We got off at the reflection pool. And everybody just scattered and moved in along people, until after an hour or two of doing that, we convened on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to stand as a choir behind Dr. King and the many speakers of the day.

  • 12:35:45

    NNAMDIAnd Harry Belafonte said, we knew we couldn't go wrong. We got Moses to go with us.

  • 12:35:49

    BELAFONTEThat's right, Charlton Heston.

  • 12:35:50

    NNAMDIHe had played Moses in "The Ten Commandments." But, of course, Harry Belafonte was international. We don't have a lot of time to go into it here. But by 1964, you had taken young activists, including a young John Lewis of SNCC to Guinea in West Africa. And you had been traveling internationally for a while, which allows me to lead into this call we have from Bosco (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Bosco, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:36:17

    BOSCOYes. Mr. Harry Belafonte, nice to speak to you. I wanted to ask you about the incredible coincidence of a gentleman from Kenya, an activist called Tom Mboya, who you met and I imagine through the documentary you had on, you are able to arrange through Robert Kennedy, the first airlift of Kenyans who came in, and one of them was Obama's dad. Does he -- is he aware of that coincidence? And could you speak a little more about that?

  • 12:36:44

    NNAMDIAnd Tom Mboya, spelled M-B-O-Y-A is -- was a Kenyan activist who you should also look up, but here is Harry Belafonte.

  • 12:36:51

    BELAFONTEHe was a foreign minister for the Jomo Kenyatta government in exile. I met him in New York and at the home of Eleanor Roosevelt. And this young Kenyan had come to America to try to use his intellectual and historical power to convince the United Nations that they should recognize Kenya and its struggle for independence and to influence the American government to look more favorably upon what they were trying to achieve.

  • 12:37:23

    BELAFONTEAnd Tom Mboya, one of the things that he wanted very much to do was to raise the academic level of some of the citizens in Kenya. And we arranged to have several airlifts that, despite the resistance of the British government which controlled Kenya at the time, we were able to get a number of students to come on these airlifts and to go into universities that we had arranged for them to have scholarship. And it was all across America, the Ivy League schools, a lot of black colleges, and just everywhere in America.

  • 12:37:57

    BELAFONTEThe first airlift brought over 81 students. And the second airlift brought over another group of students. And by the second airlift, we had been able to convince the Kennedy administration that this was a good thing to do. And through the Kennedy Foundation, we had some assistance. And on the second airlift, there was a young man by the name of Barack Obama, Sr., who was one of the students that came to America. And we had no idea that time that he would become well-known as the father of the first black president of the United States of America.

  • 12:38:29

    NNAMDIIndeed, I am currently reading the book, "The Other Barack," about Barack Obama's father, which brings me to this -- the Obama presidency. Has the White House ever reached out to you? And I know you have been, at times, critical of President Obama. What is your view of him at this point?

  • 12:38:49

    BELAFONTEI have, on many occasions, met Barack Obama, the president. I met him when he was a senator. I had done some campaign work and raised funds for him when he was running for office there. And I also ultimately became part of the campaign to help him with his presidency, although my first choice was someone else. And once he stepped into the fray, once he became president, the expectations that many of us had of things that he would do were not forthcoming.

  • 12:39:26

    BELAFONTEAnd in that context, I found that some of the decisions that he had made, which seem to have blurred what he presented as his intention to do once he became president, he was not doing, like continuing the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And the promise was that, once he became president, within a year, the troops would be removed from that zone of conflict, and a number of other things. And I began to feel that, somewhere along the line, beyond political strategy, what had happened was that his compass had lost its moral direction.

  • 12:40:06

    BELAFONTEAnd I think that it's one thing to be politically wise and smart at the table of negotiation. But legislative purpose in laws created without moral conditions and a moral focus behind what you do could become laws of tyranny. And I was just very concerned that, in particular, the violation of the International Code of Justice in war crimes, that he had embraced the idea of spiriting prisoners out of the country clandestinely. He supported the Homeland Security Act, which was froth with violations of our Constitution.

  • 12:40:55

    BELAFONTEAnd that he had not taken a strong stand against shutting down these prisons in which torture was one of the devices used to extract information from prisoners of war, which is clearly against International Code of Justice. And these things began to concern me deeply. And I began to speak to these issues. And that kind of guaranteed the fact that if there was ever an intent to invite me to the White House, I'd burnt that card. But I didn't mind that. My -- what I do and what I say socially is not to be rewarded by some social anointing. That's not my purpose. That's not my charge.

  • 12:41:40

    BELAFONTEI do these things because I profoundly believe that citizens have the right to participate in the democratic process and that we should speak out and say what we feel and let the world hear it and at least be stimulated to have a debate on subjects. So, in this case, I think that the things that I've criticized the president on are not visceral. It's not personal. I think he's very likable, charming, a very gifted young man, but there's something more important with all of that. How do you lead this nation in the time of the world's -- what could be the world's greatest moment of crisis?

  • 12:42:15

    BELAFONTEAnd in these crossroads of events, we need strong leaders and men with vision to step into the fray and not be worried about the longevity of their presidency. That's not what is important. It's what you do of human value during the time you reigned as the power. And I've yet to see something happen here. Yeah, I understand the Health Care Act. I understand some of the things that he's achieved and done.

  • 12:42:44

    BELAFONTEAnd I think we have reason to be grateful for those things, in a way, but that's not the supreme charge. There are things here that are far more challenging that we should not blur what the issues are, and I think that he has yet to step into that fray.

  • 12:43:01

    NNAMDIHarry Belafonte, speaking as he has always spoken. His memoir is called "My Song." 800-433-8850. I see the lines are filled. So if you'd like to comment or have a question for Harry Belafonte, go to our website kojoshow.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:45:18

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Harry Belafonte, singer, songwriter, actor, social activist. His memoir is called "My Song." It is written with Michael Shnayerson. And you can call us. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. Harry Belafonte, you brought Miriam Makeba, the South African singer, to this country. You were very impressed with her, not just by her talent as a musician but her commitment to fighting apartheid in her home country. I'd like to play a little bit of a duet you sang with Miriam Makeba called "My Angel," also known as "Malaika."

  • 12:47:13

    NNAMDIHarry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba. You'll have to read the memoir "My Song" to read more about Miriam Makeba. But you got yourself very involved in fighting apartheid in South Africa, and you got to know Nelson Mandela, so much so that you were put in charge of his visit to the U.S. when he was released from prison. Tell us a little bit about how that came about.

  • 12:47:38

    BELAFONTEI was called by a young man by the name of -- not so young, but his name was Oliver Tambo, and he was the president of the ANC while Nelson Mandela was in prison. And he resided in London. And through his ambassador, Lindiwe Mabusa, I was asked to please handle the affairs of Nelson Mandela when he came to the United States for his first visit. I told him upfront that that was a very daunting task, and I didn't think that I had either the credentials or the qualifications to take on such a task.

  • 12:48:12

    BELAFONTEAnd he asked me to come to London, and I did. And we spent the better part of two days discussing the agenda and what they wanted to achieve by Madiba's -- Nelson Mandela's visit here. And I then hooked up with a number of Americans, a number of American institutions, TransAfrica, Randall Robinson being one of them, a young man by the name of Roger Wilkins, who shared much of the responsibilities and with others.

  • 12:48:41

    BELAFONTEWe sat down and hammered out what we thought was the appropriate agenda for Madiba's visit. All these were approved then by the ANC, of course. And I had written Nelson Mandela in the first instance while he was in prison and tried to communicate with him, to encourage him and to let him know that there were many of us in the world who supported the cause of the South African people.

  • 12:49:06

    BELAFONTEAnd when he landed in New York where he arrived, it was the first time we ever spoke to one another. And when he got off the plane and walked down the tarmac, I was in a line with others, and he saw me. He said, ah, Harry boy. And I -- I mean, I was a grown man, in my 60s, and here was Nelson Mandela looking at me and calling me Harry boy. It was very endearing, and it was a great moment. And, anyway, we went to the United States. I have never seen this country in a mood of celebration as long as that celebration endured because he was here for 11 days.

  • 12:49:46

    BELAFONTEHe went to all the major cities, from New York to California, talked to labor unions, with the churches, the synagogues. There was no stone left unturned for people that he spoke to and told of his great joy and the fact that we had committed as a country to the sanctions movement and ending apartheid. And I think that the idea that this young nation was not only -- to become a democracy, but you had a man at the helm of it that carried such moral power and carried such commitment to nonviolence and truth was just an astounding thing for people to see and to rally around. And, in many ways, we did that.

  • 12:50:31

    NNAMDIWhen famine struck Africa in the 1980s, a group in the U.K. put together a song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to raise money for the cause. You decided to pull together a similar all-star musical cast here in the U.S. to do, ultimately, this.

  • 12:51:52

    NNAMDIHarry Belafonte, tell us about "We Are the World."

  • 12:51:56

    BELAFONTEWhen I had to come to become involved in the great famine in Ethiopia and I look at the devastation of that time, much of the continent of Africa, it was overwhelming. And what had most disturbed me beyond the look at this -- the look of this great tragedy was that there was such a great indifference. There was a great global indifference. Nobody seemed to think much about this and care very much about what was going on with a continent of people who, by the thousands, were dying each week.

  • 12:52:35

    BELAFONTEAnd rather than let that fact smother my sense of doing something about it, I decided to do something about it. And what I could do found itself in the heart of culture. As an artist, what's the best way to shed light on this? And then I came back to America, called a lot of my friends: a young man by the name of Ken Kragen, who was a great organizer, along with Quincy Jones. We talked about it and then went out and got Lionel Richie. And we got -- well, I was thinking of Stevie Wonder, who never showed up, and then, of course, Michael Jackson.

  • 12:53:20

    BELAFONTEAnd they wrote this song. And once we got the song together, it was -- we invited a couple of stars. We didn't know that we'd get as many as we did, but everybody showed up and -- bar none. And we put together this remarkable moment, and it raised not only inordinate sums of money, tens of millions of dollars that we sent directly to where they were needed, but it raised global consciousness. And everybody began to talk about the plight of our brothers and sisters in Africa. It was just a great moment.

  • 12:53:57

    BELAFONTENow we're back at that same place again, with another devastation beginning to reappear on the continent. I just hope we are not as indifferent as we were before.

  • 12:54:07

    NNAMDIYou continue to be outspoken on everything, from the Iraq war to the country's economic situation today. Have you ever regretted speaking out?

  • 12:54:14


  • 12:54:16

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you went down to the Occupy Wall Street protest recently. Are you a supporter?

  • 12:54:22

    BELAFONTEVery much so.

  • 12:54:24

    NNAMDIAs a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-apartheid protest, what do you think of the movement's goals and tactics at this point?

  • 12:54:33

    BELAFONTEI take this opportunity to say this. If anybody had told you in the very beginning, without knowing what history has revealed, that there will be a black woman somewhere down in the heart of Alabama, a placed called Montgomery, and that one day her feet were going to hurt and she just wasn't going to get on the bus and sit in the back like she -- like had been traditionally done for tens of -- and tens and -- for generations and that this little ripple of rebellion on the part of a humble woman in Mississippi would have caused a universal storm on people's thirst and lust for liberation, you would have not believed it.

  • 12:55:17

    BELAFONTEAnd while a lot of people look at these young people in these zones of rebellion and try to pooh-pooh them as just something that would go away, I said, in the humblest of places resides the power of the miracle. And a lot of these young men and women who are making this commitment are bright, smart. They know their history. They've chosen nonviolence as the weapon with which to defeat a very oppressive set of experiences people in the world are having 'cause this rebellion isn't just in the United States.

  • 12:55:47

    BELAFONTEIt's stimulated by what happened in Tunisia and Africa and other parts of the world. There is something happening here, and it should not be looked upon and dismissed as just some little annoying moment and so for rebellion.

  • 12:56:02

    NNAMDIHere is Justin in Bethesda, Md. Justin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:56:07

    JUSTINWell, thank you, Kojo, for taking my call, and I'm a huge fan. Love all your shows. Mr. Belafonte, I got to say that I had to pull over 'cause tears welled up in my eyes. I grew up -- my dad was a Danish immigrant who went to Australia. And being what I consider now a citizen of the world, I had the pleasure of seeing his love and how he transferred that to me. And you are definitely a huge part of my acceptance of other people and cultures, and I'm hopefully passing that on to my son. So a huge fan of your show, and thank you for everything you do.

  • 12:56:45

    BELAFONTEThank you so very much for saying that.

  • 12:56:47

    NNAMDIJustin, thank you very much for your call. Harry Belafonte has not slowed down. He's got a whole lot of interesting projects going on besides his memoir, a documentary about his life, "Sing Your Song," aired on HBO a couple of weeks ago. He's got many projects underway. One of them is a blog that will use social media to inspire others to action. What would you like to see happen?

  • 12:57:10

    BELAFONTEWell, right now, the thing that's most stimulating in my life is that I'm working with a union called 1199, which is a part of SEIU. It's the Service Employees International Union. They are very much in New York, the resource that keeps these kids, the tents and the blankets and the food that pours in. We are one of the institutions that keeps feeding that. And I've been down on the -- down on Wall Street.

  • 12:57:36

    BELAFONTEAnd in this context, I find it large. They have 400 -- almost 400,000 members in this union. And being in their midst every day, doing this stuff, is part of what makes me want to wake up every day.

  • 12:57:49

    NNAMDIHarry Belafonte is a singer, songwriter, actor and social activist. His memoir is called "My Song." Harry Belafonte, you walked with Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, and in your memoir, you have lived the life in the shadow and in emulation of Paul Robeson that you always wanted to live. I will be presumptuous enough to say it that on behalf of those three men, well done, Harry boy. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:58:23

    BELAFONTEThank you, Kojo. Joy to be here.

  • 12:58:25

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows