MY SONG, by Harry belafonte with Michael Shnayerson (Knopf, Oct....

MY SONG, by Harry belafonte with Michael Shnayerson (Knopf, Oct. 2011) Credit: None/

It makes sense that Harry Belafonte's office is in the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center near Times Square. As his just-published memoir, "My Song" (Alfred A. Knopf, $30.50), reveals, show business and social activism have always mingled in Belafonte's career -- indeed, "Sing Your Song," an HBO documentary that premieres Monday, spends more time on the March on Washington, which Belafonte helped organize, than on the fact that "Calypso" was the first million-selling album. As passionate as ever in his convictions, the 84-year-old Belafonte was courtly and soft-spoken in a recent interview.

What made you decide to write an autobiography?

It was the death of my friend Marlon Brando. Despite all his celebrity, people didn't know about his deeper value, his commitment to the victims of injustice. I felt I had to hurry up and catch the people who knew Marlon, and that led to gathering information about other people who had passed through my life. I took a camera and went everywhere, and that became the documentary. But it frustrated me that we couldn't linger long enough on any aspect of the story in film; I needed to find a form that could go deeper: That's the book.

You were an angry young man, yet you write evenly about difficult things like your relationship with your mother. Is that the result of 50 years of analysis?

Freudian analysis definitely helped! My blessing was that people stepped into my life to show me that there's honor in being angry, but there's greater honor in using that anger in service to a cause. In some ways, Paul Robeson was my father, Eleanor Roosevelt was my mother; they mentored me and set the course of my life.

How did performing help you serve those causes?

The folk music I sang wasn't necessarily political, but it had political ramifications. I remember singing "Hava Nagila" in Germany, just seven years after World War II ended, and the audience chimed in and stomped their feet and clapped their hands. Here I was, the black son of an immigrant woman, singing the song of a people Germany had tried to exterminate, and they were singing along. That told me how powerful what I was doing could be. Robeson told me, "Get them to sing your song, and they'll want to know who you are."

You broke new ground on television as well.

I helped Miriam Makeba get on Steve Allen's TV show; having an African woman sing in Xhosa to white Americans in 1959 made a real statement. And "Tonight With Belafonte" also in 1959] was quite offbeat -- no commercials, at my insistence, and the songs were deeply rooted in struggle -- yet it won an Emmy. The sponsor wanted five more, but said there were too many white people and asked me to make the shows all-black. I refused, and they canceled, but I have no regrets: What's the point in having a mass audience if you don't tell them something?

Top Stories


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months