RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
To read the new memoir by Harry Belafonte is to discover a man who's packed enough life into 84 years for 10 people.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANANA BOAT SONG")
HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day-o, day-o...
MONTAGNE: There's this smash hit from 1956, "Banana Boat Song." There's a film career that made great use of his matinee idol looks. And then there's Harry Belafonte, the activist. In the 1960s, he was a confidante of Martin Luther King's. By the '80s, he was organizing "We Are the World," the anthem for famine relief in Africa. For all his success, though, his path was not a sure one. It was his beautiful voice that led this child of Jamaican immigrants out of poverty and struggle.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAMAICA FAREWELL")
BELAFONTE: (Singing) Down the way where the nights are gay, and the sun shines daily on the mountaintop, I took a trip on a sailing ship and when I reached Jamaica, I made a stop. But I'm sad to say I'm on my way...
MONTAGNE: Harry Belafonte never intended to be a performer. Back in the 1940s, he was a high school dropout in Harlem, just glad to have a job, which he made his own.
BELAFONTE: Well, the job could not be considered artistic, but I did the job artistically. I was a janitor's assistant. And I loved mopping the halls, and I tried to look a little like Charlie Chaplin on skates as I just rushed up and down the hall with a wet mop, trying to take the boredom out of just all day long mopping halls and hauling garbage and stoking furnaces. But it paid off, 'cause one day I did a repair in a tenant's apartment and they gave me as a gratuity two tickets to a theater. So I went to this place, the American Negro Theater, and it was there that the universe opened up for me. I was, first of all, touched by the silence of the people in the audience. Everybody seemed so deeply reverential. I took my cue from that, that something was up, something's coming. And when the curtain opened and the actors walked onstage, the evening overwhelmed me. And I decided, what - any device I could possibly find, I wanted to stay in this place.
MONTAGNE: You ended up meeting another young man, who neither of you would ever, at that moment in time, have been able to foresee that you would become huge stars.
BELAFONTE: Well, the young man you're talking about is Sidney Poitier. I looked at Sidney and Sidney looked at me. We're eight days apart in birth, and I never really thought that he, nor I for that matter, had the credentials that we saw displayed abundantly with the young actors that we were looking at. But we fooled each other.
MONTAGNE: I gathered that when you and Sidney Poitier tried to see other plays in New York, you would share the price of a single ticket. I mean, how did that work exactly?
BELAFONTE: Well, you kept the stub. You walked in and one of us saw the first half. We'd give each other an update as to what we just saw, and the lucky one got to see the second half. It was called sharing the burden and the joy.
MONTAGNE: You describe Sidney Poitier as your first friend in life. Now, you were about 20 years old, so it would have seemed as if you would have had friends before that, but tell us why you didn't.
BELAFONTE: Well, my life was quite nomadic. I spent so much of my formative years traveling back and forth between the islands of the Caribbean and New York, where my mother resided. I was born in New York and my mother, with her away much of the time looking for work, a lot of times her children were left on their own, and that terrified her. So she took us back to the Caribbean. And for the next 12 years I shuttled back and forth. I did not get rooted long enough to develop what many people have the joy of experiencing, and that is childhood friends.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANANA BOAT SONG")
BELAFONTE: (Singing) Work all night on a drink of rum, daylight come and me wanna go home. Stack banana till the morning come, daylight come and me wanna go home. Come Mr. Tallyman, tally me banana...
MONTAGNE: In these songs from the Caribbean that might have come from your days as a child on a Kingston street, as you write in a memoir, someone might be singing as they're working.
BELAFONTE: The vendors used to sing those songs, baskets on their heads, and they'd call out the names of the things they were selling. (Singing) Guava jelly, guava. Guava jelly, guava. Cheese. Come and get as much as you please. (Speaking) Now, let me say this about the songs of the Caribbean: almost all black music is deeply rooted in metaphor, because the only way that we could speak to the pain and the anguish in our experiences was often through how we codified our stories in the songs that we sang. And when I sing the "Banana Boat Song," the song is a work song. It's about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid, and they're begging for the tallyman to come and give them an honest count - count the bananas that I've picked so I can be paid. And sometimes, when they couldn't get money, they were given a drink of rum. There's a lyric in the song that says work all night on a drink of rum. When people sing in delight and dance and love it, they don't really understand unless they study the song that they're singing a work song that's a song of rebellion.
MONTAGNE: You have been an activist since the early days of the civil rights movement, very good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. One memory that you write about is of your mother and something she told you when you were a very little boy - about five years old. You call it your Rosebud moment.
BELAFONTE: Well, I tell you, the severity of poverty kept us all deeply preoccupied with our survival, and nobody had survival skills and had greater cunning than did my mother. She was tenacious about her dignity not being crushed. And one day she said to me - she was talking about coming back from a day when she couldn't find work - fighting back tears, she said, don't ever let injustice go by unchallenged. And that really became a deep part of my life's DNA. A lot of people say to me, when as an artist did you decide to become an activist? And I say to them, I was long an activist before I became an artist.
MONTAGNE: Harry Belafonte, thank you very much for joining us.
BELAFONTE: My pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Harry Belafonte's new memoir is called "My Song." And a new HBO documentary of his life is "Sing Your Song." This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.