He fought for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Marlon Brando, Barack Obama’s mother reckons he’s the best-looking man on the planet and he has had hit records galore, but Harry Belafonte is suspicious of celebrities who write about their lives. So how come he has written a memoir and documentary about his own?
S O, WHAT do you want to know?” The words tumble out of Harry Belafonte’s mouth, delivered with a silky smooth cadence that immediately puts you at ease. Certainly, at 85 years of age, Belafonte has no desire to be anything but easy-going. His posture right now says it all. We’re on the eighth floor of London’s Mayfair Hotel, sitting together on a bright orange sofa in his expansive suite. So relaxed is he, sinking into a series of stuffed cushions, he’s virtually flat on his back at the other end of the sofa.
If he’s most famous still for his ‘Banana Boat Song’ (with that unforgettable cry of ‘Day-O’ ringing out like a clarion call), Belafonte does not trade on his past glories as populiser of calypso in the 1950s. If his career in the arts is impressive – hit records, television specials, Broadway appearances and a sporadic movie career that began in earnest with Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones – it’s his activism and involvement with the civil rights movement that distinguishes him as a man of character.
Just a fortnight ago, Belafonte was honoured at an event to celebrate the legendary Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, and given the Marlon Brando Award for “a life committed to social activism and excellence in film art”. There couldn’t be a better way of summing up Belafonte. And you suspect that, wherever he is, Brando might be looking down and smiling that his old friend and fellow political campaigner should be honoured in his name.
It was Brando, says Belafonte, who inspired him to recount his own life in the inspiring new documentary Sing Your Song. For a long time, he had resisted all offers to make such a movie. “I’m always suspicious of celebrities that write about their lives,” he says. “This is just rooted in so much narcissism and so much self-anointing. Who gives a damn that you made this movie and then that movie? Who really needs to hear that?” He uses words like “arrogance” and “abject greed” when talking about the celebrity culture that exists today.
Then Brando died in 2004, and Belafonte felt that The Godfather star “took his story” to the grave. “Nobody ever really knew what this guy did, and America will never know unless it was told. He changed the face of an art form once he started his acting technique. Everybody wanted to be Marlon. And he changed so much. But what he did so quietly with the Black Panthers, with the Native American Indian movement, and the money he gave, and the marches he showed up on in Washington ... America needs to know that their heroes do that.”
With the help of his daughter Gina, Belafonte set about putting Brando in a historical context. But as he did it, he expanded it to include his own life – so much so, he eventually penned an accompanying book, My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance, published in the UK a day before his film hits cinemas next month. “When we did the film, so many people were just absolutely agitated,” he chuckles. “They’d say, ‘You didn’t tell enough.’ But there was so much to tell.” In truth, while the book adds “additional stories”, as he puts it, you would need a veritable library to do justice to Belafonte’s rich existence.
Rather like Zelig, Woody Allen’s fictional character who rubs shoulders with great historical figures, Belafonte has been in the presence of some of the most influential people of the 20th century. John F Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela (who refers to him as Harry boy) and Bill Clinton have all felt the warmth of Belafonte’s smile over the years. “It just was astounding that these people so integrated me into their lives,” he says, before adding, “I’m still not sure about it!”
Born in 1927, Belafonte spent his early years between Harlem and Jamaica. “My mother took us there to avoid the pressures and the pains of New York. It was so carnivorous. And she took us there because it was easier to raise a child in the village than it was on the streets of New York.”
If those days were stricken with poverty, so much so he felt he would never escape it, it was here that political seeds were planted. “My activism always existed,” he says. “My art gave me the platform to do something about the activism.’”
I had assumed, wrongly, that his political and social interests had begun with his influential friend and mentor Paul Robeson, the fellow actor-singer-activist whom he first met in 1946. Robeson came to watch him, when he was 19, in his first lead role in a stage production of Juno and the Paycock. But in fact it “came in my infancy”, Belafonte says. He was seven years old and remembers watching his mother, a housekeeper named Melvine, crying in their little room in Harlem. “I asked her ‘What’s the matter, Ma?’ And she didn’t answer the question. She said, ‘Just never ever wake up in the day where there isn’t something you’re doing to fight injustice.’ And that was the sum total of the answer.”
Even at that tender age, he says, he took notice. “It branded my soul. I didn’t understand the complete use of the metaphor until I began to face this injustice. It led to me volunteering for the war; there was injustice out there. Although I understood the injustice and many of its layers, because Hitler was just a microcosm of what America could become. And my mother felt that Hitler was the first order. If we don’t settle the question with him, then we would not settle the question by the time it’s too late to ask the question.”
Melvine was “a true Jamaican beauty”, thanks to her sharecropper father’s island roots. Her mother, Belafonte’s grandmother, was the white daughter of a Scottish father who had come to Jamaica to oversee a plantation for an absentee owner. Belafonte’s father, Harold (whose surname is actually ‘Bellanfanti’) was also mixed-race – black Jamaican mother, white Dutch Jew father. A swift glance at the cover for his 1956 breakthrough third album, Calypso, shows just how beautiful he was as a young man (Barack Obama’s mother calls him “the best looking man on the planet”, according to the US president).
Even now, with his hair all but gone, he seems evergreen. Which may account for why he’s dressed today in a forest green pullover, green cords and matching socks. His glasses hooked onto the V of his sweater, he no longer sings, he tells me. He gave up in 2004, after a concert in Hamburg. “That night on stage, 30,000 people making that much noise and flooding me with that much generosity, it was a very personal moment. And I said, ‘This is it. It’s not going to get any better than this.’ And it would be nice to leave it with this much dignity.”
Along the way, he has won a Tony award (for the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac), Grammies, a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center honour. He even became the first African-American to win an Emmy (for his first solo TV special, Tonight With Belafonte). But these baubles seem insignificant next to his friendship with Dr Martin Luther King, the prominent figure in the African-American civil rights movement who was assassinated in 1968. Belafonte, who had provided financial assistance for King’s family when he was a lowly preacher, was devastated. “I was immobile, physically and emotionally and psychologically,” he says.
Ironically, it came in the same year that Belafonte performed with Petula Clark on a primetime television special; in the middle of a song, Clark smiled and briefly touched her co-singer’s arm – an act that caused a media-stirred controversy. “I didn’t think anything about the touch,” he says now. “Nothing happened until after the fact.” He was more than used to such touchstone moments. Eleven years earlier, his appearance in the film Island in the Sun, with its (minimal) hints of interracial sexuality between him and Joan Fontaine was so incendiary to some that the Ku Klux Klan threatened to bomb any cinema that showed it.
Despite raising thousands of dollars to release other civil rights protesters, Belafonte is too modest to blow up his own achievements. “I certainly didn’t see myself as Dr King,” he says, quietly. Yet he has been a comforting presence. When Mandela was released from prison, Belafonte was instructed by African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo to handle Mandela’s affairs on a visit to America. “Nothing gave me as much anxiety as that,” he laughs.
It meant dealing with the US Secret Service, who presented Belafonte with a strict protocol for the visit that had been designed to keep Mandela’s visibility in public to a minimum – meaning no open-top cars and no stadium venues. “[I told them] Nelson Mandela did not come here to be in retreat and to be hidden. He came here to tell the American people, ‘Thanks so much for the support you’ve given our cause.’ And he has to tell this to the world – we had booked stadiums. It was huge, everywhere. And all of a sudden they were telling us this had to be muted ... and they were quite upset I said this. They went away and must have said, ‘Who does this banana boat singer think he is?’”
Not that Belafonte is the sort to back down. He served in the navy in the Second World War, yet by 1954 he was accused of being a “communist fronter” for, among other things, sharing a freedom rally stage with Robeson and others on the left. Later, he discovered that his manager, Jay Richard Kennedy, was an informant for the FBI, passing on information about his client. No wonder Belafonte has a stinging dislike for FBI founder J Edgar Hoover. “[He] was vehemently anti the civil rights movement,” he spits. “And anti the women’s movement, and anti-Indian ... he was just an anti-person.”
In many ways, Belafonte has been a brilliant facilitator over the years, enlisting the help of Brando, Paul Newman, James Garner and other icons to the cause. Perhaps even more remarkably, he befriended John F Kennedy in 1959, then a young senator from Massachusetts desperate to win the black vote. “I didn’t sit with Kennedy to do anything but talk about ‘You’re missing the boat with black people in this country, and a lot of us will not endorse you.’” When Kennedy was elected president, he appointed Belafonte as cultural adviser to the new Peace Corps, which sent thousands of volunteers to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
If he has any regrets in these years, it’s his family. “All too often, I’m sorry to say, I relegated my family to the cracks and margins,” he admits. By 1957, after his nine-year marriage to Marguerite Byrd ended (they had two daughters, Adrienne and Shari), he wed for a second time, to former dancer Julie Robinson. Belafonte fathered two more children – Sing Your Song producer Gina and David, now a music producer and executive director of the family-held company Belafonte Enterprises.
My Song – written with the help of Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson – rather sanitises Belafonte’s personal life. He glosses over his divorce from Robinson after 47 years of marriage, when he was 77 years old. “I felt angry and trapped,” he writes, “but then I’d always felt that way. Trapped by my mother, by poverty ... by the responsibility I felt for the global poor.” As he talks about being suffocated, and relinquishing the need to “fight for air in an airless marriage”, he speaks with an almost clinical detachment.
While he married photographer Pamela Frank in 2008, you get the feeling that Belafonte will always be wedded to the cause, fighting the good fight, first and foremost. I wonder how he feels about America, with all its problems. “The best place in the world to be,” he smiles. “And I’ve seen a good part of the world. I think there’s something in the DNA of that nation. We’re on the cutting edge of possibility. We’re visionaries. We’re arrogant, which can be fixed.” It’s a job he has devoted his life to. n
Sing Your Song opens in cinemas on 8 June. My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance in published on 7 June, Canongate, £14.99