- Harry Belafonte
legendary musician, actor and humanitarian. He’s the subject of a new documentary about his life, called Sing Your Song. This interview was conducted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film will air on HBO in the fall.
Legendary musician, actor, activist and humanitarian Harry Belafonte joins us for the hour to talk about his battle against racism, his mentor Paul Robeson, the power of music to push for political change, his close relationship with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the U.S. role in Haiti. A new documentary chronicles his life, called Sing Your Song. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Belafonte grew up on the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. In the 1950s, he spearheaded the calypso craze and became the first artist in recording history with a million-selling album. He was also the first African-American musician to win an Emmy. Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, Belafonte became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. One of Dr. King’s closest confidants, he helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. “Going into the South of the United States, listening to the voices of rural black America, listening to the voices of those who sang out against the Ku Klux Klan and out against segregation, and women, who were the most oppressed of all, rising to the occasion to protest against their conditions, became the arena where my first songs were to emerge,” Belafonte tells Democracy Now! [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Fifty years ago, a mixed group of black and white students calling themselves the Freedom Riders risked their lives by riding buses into the South to challenge segregation. On May 16, 1961, their bus was attacked by a mob when it stopped in Birmingham, Alabama. A new documentary that traces the Freedom Ride movement premiers tonight on PBS American Experience.
Well, today we spend the hour with one of those who supported the Freedom Rides and played a key role in the civil rights movement: the legendary musician, actor and humanitarian, Harry Belafonte. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up in the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. In the '50s, he spearheaded the calypso craze, was the first person in history to sell over a million albums. He was also the first African American to win an Emmy. Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, Harry Belafonte became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. He was one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's closest confidants and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
Now a new documentary chronicles his life. It’s called Sing Your Song. It’s co-produced by Harry Belafonte’s daughter Gina. [It will air on HBO this fall.] I sat down with Harry Belafonte in Park City, Utah, after his film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and began by asking him why he made Sing Your Song.
HARRY BELAFONTE: It came into being from so many different perspectives. So many coincidences collided, and all of a sudden one day I woke up, and there I was with cameras rolling everywhere. A lot of people have often talked to me about leaving some memoir behind on my journey, and especially my daughter Gina, who is just always prodding me to — “You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do it.” And although I kind of understood the spirit of the challenge, I was deeply concerned about how you would take 80 years of history and all the things that I thought were important to my journey and put that into the technology and into the demands of pop culture and getting the word out.
What tilted my commitment to this was the death of a friend. Marlon Brando was my schoolmate. We met each other before our platforms had given us the access that we have had. And when he passed away, beyond having lost a close friend, what bothered me was that what he was about and how he used his power and his platform, his art and his own history, in a commitment to the disenfranchised, for the wretched of the earth, for people who had no one articulating as fully as they should for the interests of those who have been abused and oppressed, and the way he stepped into it, sometimes quietly — most of the time quietly — and did what he did with it — the indigenous people, Native Americans, Latinos — the way he stepped into the black community, the way in which he used himself, you know, a tremendous force, to move the agenda, without any exploitation of “Look at me, and here’s what I’m doing.” With his passing away, he took that legacy with him, and I wasn’t sure who would be around to retrieve it.
And then I began to look at a number of people like him who had passed away and we never sang their song. And they always sang ours. And that became the kind of a titillating concept that let me think that maybe we could do this. My great fear was about a lot of self-anointing. We are, at worst or at best, very narcissistic in our profession. It’s always about “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” And although some of that is unavoidable, I was concerned that my journey would carry too much of that self-serving. Yet, from a cinema point of view, I was the only force that could take the audience through the narrative. I was the only one that I had at my disposal that could personalize the information.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your first memories of being politically active, your consciousness of who you were in this country, in the United States of America.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I’m not quite sure precisely when social and political activism became a visible brand of my DNA, but it seems to me that I was born into it. It is hard to be born into the experience in the world of poverty and not develop some instinct for survival and resistance to those things that oppress you. My mother was a feisty lady. Although she had never gotten into a place of formal education, she came here and had to learn skills, became a seamstress. She became an expert cook. She worked at odds and ends in jobs. She never resisted the opportunity to fight oppression, especially segregation and all the things that plagued people who were immigrants. In her resistance, she counseled us constantly.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, professionally, you started more acting before you really professionally singing, is that right?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Well, acting was the complete key, was the main key to my getting involved. In this play that we did of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the director had created a character in the play who would become the balladeer. He would be a force. The director moved throughout the play to — in the changing of sets, changing of cues, lighting cues, changing of mood. And this character would emerge from the darkness of the corners of the stage and sing the songs of the day, for those migrant workers coming from Southwest America. And most of the songs that I had to sing were the songs that had been written by Huddie Ledbetter and by Woody Guthrie. As a matter of fact, I opened the play with a Woody Guthrie song.
Anyway, let me jump to the quick of this. It was approaching the material as an actor, because the director spent a lot of time on what the balladeer would do, how he would positioned and — how he would be positioned, what the intensity of the moment of singing the song would mean to the development of the play or the scene. And in that context, I approached music as a tool that was really about social information. It wasn’t just harmony and chords and notes and melody, all that was obvious. But it was the content and the power of song. And having been heard in that play in that context, I was offered a job to become a singer. And since I couldn’t find other work, being a singer was a good challenge. So I put a repertoire together, walked into a night club called the Royal Roost, met guys like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Max Roach.
AMY GOODMAN: They were your backup band?
HARRY BELAFONTE: My first backup band were those guys. And they just launched me into a world from which I have never looked back.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, the legendary music, actor and humanitarian. A new film is out on his life. It’s called Sing Your Song. We’re back with Harry in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Jamaica Farewell” by Harry Belafonte, the son of Jamaican immigrants. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with the legendary musician, actor and humanitarian. He’s the subject of a new documentary about his life called Sing Your Song.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, one of the incredible stories told in Sing Your Song is your traveling through the South and trying to sing your song. Talk about that experience.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Paul Robeson, who was a mentor and a man for whom I had enormous love and admiration, was the supreme example for me of how to use your life with dignity and with courage — not bravado, but genuine social courage, to put all that’s on the line to come up against the forces of oppression, who controlled so much of what you could or could not do as an artist. And to defy that fact and go after the larger goal of changing the faces of oppression inspired me. And he went everywhere there was the opportunity to be heard, whether it was going into Spain to sing during the great Spanish revolutionary war in ’30s, whether it was going to England. He went and he worked with the Welsh miners. As a matter of fact, his whole engagement, politically, had been stimulated by what happened when he met the Welsh miners. And he sang with them, and he went into their world.
Well, when I watched what he did and how many places he went for inspiration, and mostly places where there was oppression, I felt those were the places in which I would be most nourished and what I should be doing with my own art and with my own platform. And certainly going into the South of the United States, listening to the voices of rural black America, listening to the voices of those who sang out against the Ku Klux Klan and out against segregation, and women, who were the most oppressed of all, coming rising to the occasion to protest against their conditions, became the arena where my first songs were to emerge. And in that context, going in the South was for me not to exploit commercially — that didn’t come until later — but to find the resources to nourish my own creativity.
AMY GOODMAN: So there you were, the star on the stage, but you couldn’t go in the front door. Describe that experience.
HARRY BELAFONTE: When I went to the South on a professional basis, I had already arrived at a place where there was some visibility. I was going with artists who were quite well known — Marge and Gower Champion, a play called Three for Tonight. Many of the places we booked throughout the universities of America, a lot of the places we went were to the universities in the South, like Chapel Hill and the University of Texas. And in going to those places, we thought we were going not so much for the commercial reward of it — that was how we made our living — but to get to young people and to get our works before them.
And in the places that we went, some of the auditoriums were public institutions. And when I got to some of these places not only did they not want to let me in the theater, they didn’t want to let me in the places in which we were booked to stay overnight. There were many instances where, by law, no black person could stay in this hotel, or by law, no black person could be sitting at a table with a white member of the cast — I mean, white woman member of the cast — and not be sitting in the threat of incarceration and the law coming down on you, because these were then tenets of the law. This wasn’t just something that was capricious; it was written. It was the legislation of the state. And we had to come up against that. And the battle was consistent. And even in the North, places like the Waldorf Astoria and the Palmer House in Chicago and these mighty institutions of culture did have strict race laws. And in accepting employment to go in these places, rigidly placed in my contract was the requirement that those laws and those rules be suspended and not be evoked during the time of my appearance.
AMY GOODMAN: That you — you’re talking about the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did they want? And what did you demand?
HARRY BELAFONTE: When I worked in the Waldorf Astoria, I was on Broadway. I came to the place called the Starlight Roof, which was at the top of the building. The main hall was the Empire Room downstairs in the great theater, and I didn’t have access to that theater. But they were renovating this place at the top of the building called the Starlight Roof. And then a man, Claude Philippe, a French Jew who ran that department within the Waldorf Astoria, completely unaware of the rules, hired me, as an act of genius to get this star to come to sing. When I appeared, and the hierarchy in the Hilton institution were awakened to the fact that there was a black guy on the top of the building singing, and he was singing songs that were constantly socially volatile, they got really angry. And how did we get booked? And when Claude Philippe pleaded his having done that, they fired him. And they couldn’t suspend me until my contract ended.
However, at the end of my tour of duty at the Waldorf, they took a look at the books, and everything had gone up 40 percent. The halls were jammed. The black waiters or the waiters of color that Claude Philippe, in response to the Waldorf Astoria hierarchy, began to put waiters of other nationalities into the service of the institution — room service went up 30 percent. And having black people in the institution began to show huge margins of profit. The entertainment division had never shown such robust sales of liquor and people coming. So, the economic viability of having me also weighed strongly upon the fact that I consistently protested these segregation pockets.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, when did you first meet Dr. Martin Luther King?
HARRY BELAFONTE: It was right after Birmingham — I’m sorry, Montgomery, right after the Montgomery Bus Boycott had taken hold, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Association — the Montgomery Improvement Association. And we had all heard about this young minister, and certainly we all heard of Rosa Parks. And I got a call, and before the strike had been settled even. They had not expected it to run so long.
AMY GOODMAN: So this was in 1956?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Nineteen fifty-six. Dr. King called, and he was coming to New York to speak at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. There was — at that time, the head pastor was Adam Clayton Powell, who was in our Congress. And he was going to give a lecture to people from the ecumenical community. And he said, “I’m coming to New York, and I’d love to have an opportunity to meet you. And I’d like to give you an idea of what it is that I do.” And I was absolutely fascinated that he called, and I wanted very much to meet him.
So I went up to the church to hear him speak. And at the end of his lecture, he would retire to the basement. And for what he said would just be a few minutes, almost at the end of four hours, we exchanged thoughts, feelings and passions. And at the end of that meeting, I knew that I would be in his service and focus on the cause of the desegregation movement, the right to vote, and all that he stood for. Although we understood how perilous the journey would be, we were not quite prepared for all that we had to confront. And I think that it was the most important time in my life.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip from Sing Your Song of Dr. Martin Luther King.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Dr. King, do you fear for your life?
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: 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.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t. All of a sudden, our worst fears were being awakened. I really did not give myself much time to be preoccupied with any personal deep sense of loss.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Martin Luther King, and that clip is from the film about Harry Belafonte’s life, about the history of the 20th century and coming into the 21st, called Sing Your Song. Harry, that relationship you had with Dr. King that went on for more than a decade, until his assassination, how often did you speak?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I would say, easily, we spoke every day. Obviously, we missed some days or some weekends, but the line was constantly filled with thoughts and ideas and challenge and up-to-date decisions that were being made by a team of people that were always brought together when there was the moment to escalate what we were doing or to be cautious about where we were going.
And also we were trying to broaden the base of our political relationships. So much of what our mission was doing was very dependent on our relationship with the federal government, with the institutions of justice, because our plea was on a constitutional basis: the Constitution of the United States of America is being grossly violated by all the things that black people are experiencing. And if you don’t have the instruments of government and the federal government on your side, including the courts, then you really can’t do very much, because all the laws that bound us to such cruel experience were state laws, and there was no way to appeal the injustice within the state structure. So we had to find ways in which to broaden our campaign to include a national movement and it becoming a national movement to entice federal intervention.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know how many of those hundreds of conversations were recorded by the FBI?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think my safest bet would be all of them. I don’t know when it would have started, but —
AMY GOODMAN: Have you gotten transcripts of those conversations?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes, I’ve gotten transcripts. I’ve gotten some stuff from the Freedom of Information Act. What’s very important is the fact that in the first 10 years of pursuing to get those files, I have letters that come from both the CIA and the FBI assuring me, “With all honesty and with having done all due diligence and deep research, such documents don’t exist. There are none.” And eventually we had other sources that came through other ways in which they began to look through files and saw my name and situations —
AMY GOODMAN: Like Taylor Branch, the historian.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Taylor Branch, the historian, he was most revealing in what he had done with the research. But also journalists and other people who were digging to get stories on other subjects came across those files and informed us. And then, finally, the FBI capitulated. And the first documents they sent, about hundreds of pages, 99 percent of those pages were just one big black stroke. So the insult against intelligence to send those kinds of files to a citizen whose rights were being violated was an insult to not only intelligence, but a crushing of the rights to information and to living in a society that is more open and transparent.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the march from Selma to Montgomery and who you brought down, and the fear at that time, and how these artists were also a kind of protection, the front lines, if you will, to protect the people who were at great risk whose names were not famous.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think all the artists who did this understood that, understood that there was the threat to life and that some irrational person somewhere or some irrational group somewhere would find it very adventurous to mark them as one of the targets. There’d be a lot of heroism coming from the clan of these retarded people, emotionally and socially, to say they killed a celebrity, which in fact became in vogue not so shortly after this period. Look what they did to John Kennedy and to so many others, Dr. King, and etc. But these artists understood that. It wasn’t — they were not blinded by it. They weren’t blind to it, I should say. And by putting themselves on the line, it heightened public curiosity. And in heightening public curiosity, it meant that things were forced to be more transparent. And they weren’t quite ready to reveal themselves that way — I’m talking about the opposition.
Except it’s important to note that at the very night of our concert, the night thereafter, was when Mrs. Liuzzo was murdered, and as a matter of fact, in the car in which she had taken one of the members of our group to the airport. She was on her way back. Tony Bennett gave up his seat in that ride.
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Bennett was there, singing.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yeah, he was there. And he gave up his seat to someone else, to Mrs. Liuzzo and the young man that was with her.
AMY GOODMAN: She was a white woman who wanted to support the struggle, the civil rights struggle —
HARRY BELAFONTE: She was the wife of —
AMY GOODMAN: — by driving people?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes. She was a member of the Automobile Workers Union, and she volunteered to come down and was one of the organizers. And she drove cars to give people facility back and forth to the different places in which artists had to reside. And in doing that service, on her way back from the airport, she fell a target to murderers who killed her. That was to have been Tony Bennett’s car.
It was also important, I think, because the kind of artists that came down didn’t have a platform on which they were going to be very visible. Singers could always be heard, but — Leonard Bernstein came down. And when he and I spoke, Leonard said, “I don’t sing. There will be no orchestra to conduct. But morally I feel an obligation to let my presence be seen and to let people draw whatever strength from that they might be able to garnish, to know that their struggle has touched all of us.” So there were many who people don’t even know about.
AMY GOODMAN: You also helped fund Freedom Summer.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that, putting your finances behind the struggle. I mean, you now — what, in ’55 or before, had the first gold record, Calypso, gold, million-selling record, first one in this country. Some had singles, but you had the record.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yeah, it was the first album to achieve the sales of a million. And beyond all of the hoopla that came with that fact from the commercial end stood the studio and the record company. What was very prophetic about that moment for me was that it became symbolic of an instruction that Paul Robeson had given me. And he said, “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.” And in that little exchange down in the dressing room of the Village Vanguard, I woke up not too long after that wonderful piece of counsel to understand what he meant, because that album housed the song “Banana Boat (Day-O).” And the whole world was singing the song, in a literal sense. But also, when I looked at the thousands of people that came to the stadiums to hear that song and others, I realized that the world was singing my song. And in Robeson’s counsel, this was the opportunity to begin to spread truth and to open up opportunities for information to flow.
It was the opportunity to reach out to other artists, who may not have been heard otherwise or needed or be heard, like Miriam Makeba. America knew nothing about the struggles of the people in Africa. Miriam Makeba came; she got the platform. Ed Sullivan was convinced that, in his world, to let Miriam Makeba come on the program and to sing in Xhosa — and for him it was an adventure, and he had been told by the programmers that they’re not going to understand. And he said, “Oh, they’ll understand. Harry likes it, it’s good enough for me.” And he got on the air, and there was Miriam Makeba singing these songs, and her popularity became quite intense.
AMY GOODMAN: Which was very important for the anti-apartheid struggle —
HARRY BELAFONTE: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: — spreading into the United States.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Absolutely. Not only the anti-apartheid struggle, which spread in the United States, but for a greater understanding of the liberation of the whole continent, because there was people like Sékou Touré and Nyerere and Tom Mboya, and all of the entire continent was awakened with the idea of liberation. Having African artists, eventually Hugh Masekela and others, the whole idea of world music was seeded in the fact that the banana boat songs from the Caribbean — it opened up more music from Cuba and the whole power in Afro-Cuban jazz and what those great Cuban artists did, who pollinated American jazz with such great harmonies in song. All of that stuff was a melting pot for a greater truth.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, the legendary singer, activist, actor, humanitarian This is Democracy Now! A new film is out on his life. It’s called Sing Your Song. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Island in the Sun” by Harry Belafonte, as we continue our conversation with the legendary musician, actor, activist, Harry Belafonte, the subject of the new film Sing Your Song. I spoke to him in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival.
AMY GOODMAN: In the film, Sing Your Song, you talk about bringing many Kenyan students to the United States, funding them to come to the United States, being a part of that. And one of those people was President Obama’s father, Barack Obama.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes. The first airlift, there were 81 students, and the British government fought us tenaciously. They tried to stop the plane. They tried to say we were violating international law and rules. They protested vigorously, especially since Jackie Robinson was my partner in this mischief. They got very upset. And our first airlift of 81 students landed. There were several planes after that. In our second contingent came this young man by the name of Barack Obama. And his name wasn’t “Senior” then, because Junior hadn’t been born. But Barack Obama, Sr., or Barack Obama, came. He was a student, did his time of study, as did all the other Africans. And the contract with them was really an understanding that we will find housing, we will protect you in every way economically, we’ll get your visas validated, you do your term of study. But you’re obliged at that point to then go back to Africa and help in the development of your own countries. And the spirit of that was quite intense, and we all had a great sense of opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your relationship in the early '60s with the Kennedys? The Kennedy — President Kennedy, you know, is seen as the partner in fighting for civil rights, and the accomplishments even after his death of Voting Rights Act. But you didn't always see eye to eye.
HARRY BELAFONTE: No, we didn’t always see eye to eye at all. The overture that was made to me by the Kennedys to meet with the then-senator Jack Kennedy was the result of a happening. Jackie Robinson, who was one of the mightiest forces within the black community, was a Democrat and had tenaciously committed himself to principles of the Democratic Party. But as is the case, the Democratic Party was most dismissing and somewhat paternalistic about black citizens that were committed to a lot of the interests of the party. And in one such moment, they heaved an insult on Jackie Robinson, which just infuriated him. And he stepped away from the Democratic Party, denouncing them, and in that denunciation, took an alliance with the Republicans, really as an act of vendetta rather than an act of philosophical choice. And when he did that, it sent a shudder through liberal America that Jackie Robinson, this icon, this vision, had stepped into the camp of the opposition. And in a flurry to try to fill that void, they looked around at who was possible, a possible candidate. And in that context, they came to me.
And Jack Kennedy said he would like to have a meeting. And I saw no problem with that, and I needed to hear what he had to say. And in that evening that he came to the house, we sat and talked for a long period of time, and as he explained to me why he thought it was important for me to be on board with his campaign, I also saw the opportunity to explain to him that nothing that he was telling me was sufficient enough motivation. I thought he had missed the boat altogether. He did not understand, with any real depth of understanding, what black people were going through, what the Democratic Party should be paying attention to, what his reign would mean to this force of change that was happening on the horizon. And the absence of knowledge that he revealed kind of — it kind of stunned me. But I saw it also as an opportunity to then bring that information to the table, because I knew there were people working for him who knew much better than he knew, who were in his camp. Harris Wofford was one of the people, from Pennsylvania, the Quaker movement, and very much involved in liberations of slaves and stuff like that. And with people like him, we began this campaign with information.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of President Obama?
HARRY BELAFONTE: If I take a shift from how confused and how complicated the politics of this country is, I’d have to first of all say that the fact that the collective power of the voters of this nation, among all of its citizens, should have chosen to elect him as the president of the United States says something about America’s deeper resonance. Where really lies Americans’, America’s passion? What does its citizens really hope for? Having said that, I must then say that I am somewhat dismayed that there has not been a greater revelation of the use of his power to make choices, not only for legislation, but for public discourse and debate, in a greater way than he has availed us of.
And I’m reminded very quickly of a story, sitting with Eleanor Roosevelt, told us one night up there in Hyde Park after dinner. We loved — we reveled in her stories. And she told me the — told us the story of her husband and his first meeting with great, powerful labor leader named A. Philip Randolph, who was the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a job that was quite menial but very critical to the American railway system. And she loved A. Philip Randolph and his intellect and his evaluations as a union organizer, and in bringing him to the White House for dinner, invited A. Philip Randolph to tell the President his view of the state of the union from the Negro perspective and from the perspective of the black workers. And as a great mind and thinker, very much engaged, A. Philip Randolph held forth, and Roosevelt listened very carefully, and very stimulated by what Philip Randolph had to say. At the end of that moment, A. Philip Randolph was waiting for a response. And Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said to him — of course, paraphrasing, he said, “Mr. Randolph, I’ve heard everything you have to say, the way in which you’ve criticized the fact that I have not used the power of my platform sufficiently in the service of the workers of this nation, and particularly the Negro people, that I didn’t use my bully pulpit more vigorously. And I cannot deny that that may be the case. As a matter of fact, I believe that is the case. And in that context, I’d like to ask you to do me a favor. And that is, if that is so, I’d like to ask you to go out and make me do what you think it is I should do. Go out and make me do it.”
And when you ask me about Barack Obama, it is exactly what happened to Kennedy. We, the American people, made the history of that time come to another place by our passion and our commitment to change. What is saddened — what is sad for this moment is that there is no force, no energy, of popular voice, popular rebellion, popular upheaval, no champion for radical thought at the table of the discourse. And as a consequence, Barack Obama has nothing to listen to, except his detractors and those who help pave the way to his own personal comfort with power — power contained, power misdirected, power not fully engaged. And it is our task to no longer have expectations of him, unless we have forced him to the table and he still resists us. And if he does that, then we know what else we have to do, is to make change completely. But I think he plays the game that he plays because he sees no threat from not evidencing concerns for the poor. He sees no threat from not evidencing a deeper concern for the needs of black people, as such. He feels no great threat from not evidencing a greater policy towards the international community, for expressing thoughts that criticize the American position on things and turns that around. Until we do that, I think we’ll be forever disappointed in what that administration will deliver.
AMY GOODMAN: And to those who say, “If you want President Obama re-elected, you will undermine him if you criticize him; and consider the alternative”?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think we will not only undermine him, but undermine the hopes of this nation, if we don’t criticize him. Absence of protest in the times of this kind of national crisis — Theodore Roosevelt once says, “When tyranny takes over the national agenda, it is that time that the voices of protest must be awakened. And if you don’t raise your voice in protest, you are a patriotic traitor.” And I believe that patriotism is betrayed by those voices that are not heard. Those who would detract you from that fact are those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Nothing will happen but good for Barack Obama and the United States of America, and indeed the world, if everybody stepped to the table and said, “This is the course we must be on.”
AMY GOODMAN: Have you let President Obama know your views? You have been with him.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Every opportunity I’ve had to put that before him, he has heard. I have not had a chance to put it to him as forcefully as I would like to, because he has not yet given us the accessibility to those places where this could be said in a more articulate way and not always on the fly.
But he once said something to me during his campaign for the presidency, and he says — he said, you know — I said, “I’ve heard you” — he was talking before businessmen on Wall Street here in — there in New York. And he said to me — I said, “Well, you know, I hope you bring the challenge more forcefully to the table.” And he said, “Well, when are you and Cornel West going to cut me some slack?” And I got caught with that remark. And I said to him, in rebuttal, I said, “What makes you think we haven’t?” And the truth of the matter is that we were somewhat contained even at the extent to which we criticized him during the campaign, in the hopes that it would energize his capacity to get elected and that, once he was elected, that burden would be off his back and he would use this new platform to do things other than what we have been experiencing. And I think any further retreat from bringing truth to power and forcing him to hear the voice of the people would be a disservice to this country and all that it promises to be.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, you have always been there for Haiti. What is your assessment of Haiti today? We just went down after the earthquake, and then after six months, to look at any progress, of which there had been almost none. At this point, it’s President Clinton, former President Clinton, who is in charge of the recovery, with the prime minister of Haiti, Bellerive, but all say it’s really the foreign interests that are in charge. What is your assessment of what’s happening there?
HARRY BELAFONTE: My assessment of what’s happening in Haiti is really very much attuned to what I call business as usual. It’s not the first time Haiti has been in trouble, in severe trouble. And America has a pattern in looking at the devastation that takes place in regions where they have great interests. And they move in, first and foremost, to look how to use the moment of distress to further those interests. And after those interests have been put in place, they look at all else. And how do you protect American foreign policy? Who will you support that will emerge from the ranks of these people to be the leading voices? And who do we determine will become the leaders of these people in this moment of desperate need? That’s not true just — that’s not just true about Haiti. This is true about any place that has a moment of upheaval, to step in and to try to change the course of history of their experience. And in this context, Haiti is once again at the doorstep of need. And I think it’s what America is not doing that is making all the difference in what’s happening to this beleaguered nation.
And I think the presence of Clinton, as welcomed as that might be for using his power to focus light on the tragedy, his presence really blurs the deeper truth of what’s going on, because his presence suggests that power is being used properly. But in fact, power is being severely abused, in trying to reach out for the needs of the peoples of Haiti, the politics, the political process, choosing the voting process, who will be funded by the great resources that pour out of America that will be the next leader. The next leader will be the guy who has the most money. And the people who usually get the most money are the people who are not at the best interests of the indigenous, are not anywhere near the best interests of the people. They’re at the best interests of American capital, the best interests of American policy, and at our behest. And this is not a new theory. If you want to look at the Monroe Doctrine and what happened when we wrote that, we stated what the business would be for America’s power, especially in this hemisphere. We have always been the colonizer of this hemisphere, wherever we’ve been. And our policy will prevail everywhere, or no policy will prevail. And I think that America must be awakened to that.
And let me hasten to do something that I hope you will keep in when this broadcast is edited. And that is, I cannot tell you the untold good that you do for the constituencies that you reach, primarily among young people. I’ve sat with them in places across the length and breadth of this country when you were on the air. And I listen to their response when you reveal the deeper truth of what’s going on in so many places. And the realization that in many instances you’re the only voice is not only a testimony to your own courage and your own dignity and your own sense of moral destiny, but it’s also a reflection of how vast we’ve abused our power at getting information to people so they can make healthy decisions on how to use their space and their power.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte. A new film has been made about his life. It’s called Sing Your Song. The activist, the actor, the singer, the humanitarian.