05/16/2011 05:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

"Sing Your Song": Harry Belafonte on Art and Politics, Civil Rights and His Critique of President Obama

Tonight, PBS's American Experience airs the documentary Freedom Riders, about the effort of students to end segregation in the South.

A prominent supporter of the Freedom Riders and the greater civil rights movement was Harry Belafonte, who gave an extensive interview on Democracy Now! today.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, 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, 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. Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman talked with Belafonte in Park City, Utah, after his film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

In the interview, Belafonte also commented on his assessment of President Obama's presidency.

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.

Belafonte continues:

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 evidencing concerns for the poor. He sees no threat from evidencing a deeper concern for the needs of black people, as such. He feels no great threat from 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.

He also discusses the situation in Haiti.

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?