Harry Belafonte Talks Wall Street Protests, Obama And Gambling

10/18/2011 04:26 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2011

Calypso singer Harry Belafonte became famous for his "Banana Boat" song, but it's his incredible social activism that is truly inspiring.

He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, amassed reams of files from the CIA and FBI and was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. He shares his story in "My Song: A Memoir" and in a new HBO documentary, "Sing Your Song."

The 84-year-old spoke to The Huffington Post about his career, the Occupy Wall Street protests and what he really thinks about President Obama -- and no, there was no "sleeping" during this interview.

What has been the highlight of your career?
The highlight had a consistency to it. It's one thing in life to want to be a performer or an artist, especially in the theater; it's another thing to achieve a measure of success that has global appeal, and with that kind of platform to then put all of that into the service of social change and be able to make alliances with people who are deeply committed to social change. It becomes a high point of one's life. I had the extremely good fortune of being able to have a piece of those experiences from one iconic figure to another, Robeson to Dubois to Eleanor Roosevelt to Dr. King to Nelson Mandela, and then to be thrown in with my peers who had achieved so much, like Marlon Brando. To be bouncing around in that world really is an anointing that I don't know how to describe. It's not comparative; it has continued to highlight itself.

You write that you donated an enormous amount of money to different causes. Any regrets?
No, not at all. Then I would have to dissect what would I have left out. Maybe if I'd lightened up a bit on the gambling, there would be a dollar or two extra, but that was not a real impediment. That was not where the bulk of the money went.

Did you have a serious gambling problem?
No, it just got in the way. I used to take a certain amount and with the pressures around me -- through all the things that needed funding -- it became very seductive ... I soon got over it, but during the high days of Las Vegas, it took its toll.

You say you're disappointed in President Obama.
Yes, but if I have anything to do with it, he'll be reelected because I'm going to work for him. But that does not mean that there is not disappointment. I see the list of renegades that are vying for the job and I know who could be in the space, like Bush and others who I've not had much inclination toward, but I still think the promise of Obama carries more for us than gambling with another candidate.

What do you think of the Wall Street protests?
First of all, I find them extremely interesting and telling ... for those of us who are from the civil rights movement. They are doing it with non-violence, which is a reward for many of us that the principle, as a social strategy, has endured and has obviously been passed on to the succeeding generations. ... Nobody quite knows where this will go. So while I watch this intellectual masturbation and the pundits throwing thoughts around, I quietly take joy in the fact that there is a mysterious thing at work here.

What is your take on young black celebrities today?
It frustrates me. It saddens me because there's inordinate power in the celebrity class and what they could do collectively -- or even individually -- has been so wasted and the fact that all they're worried about is the box office. I think the attraction of greed is a part of the heartbeat of our culture. It's so intense and so persuasive and very little is able to come up against it, and when something does come up against it and change it, it is always temporary because after all we did 50 years ago, here we are back where America's still experiencing a racist dimension.

We are still caught up in the belief -- the arrogance that our power, our capacity to kill and destroy and go to war -- will solve all of our problems and they don't. So when you watch all of these things, you realize that the capitulation of artists has been a great loss to liberation and a moral plateau that we could have all hit.

Suggest a correction