Exclusive: Author remembers artist, activist, friend Harry Belafonte

In an exclusive interview with Scripps News, Michael Shnayerson remembers his co-author, Harry Belafonte.
Posted at 9:09 PM, Apr 25, 2023

Harry Belafonte died of heart failure at the age of 96 Tuesday.

He left behind a legacy as one of America's most iconic entertainers, being the first Black performer to win an Emmy Award and to sell a million records as a singer. But he was also an unrelenting civil rights activist who used his celebrity to help others, often working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

With Belafonte, Michael Shnayerson co-authored the definitive autobiography "My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance" about the legend. He said Belafonte was a unique subject — in part because of his many talents but also because of his persistent drive to help others, often donating huge sums of money to help movements like that of Dr. King or Nelson Mandela.

"Having spent almost three years with him, that compassion was absolute and heartfelt," Shnayerson told Scripps News.

Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte, singer, actor, activist, dies at 96

Belafonte's spokesperson said he suffered congestive heart failure.


Shnayerson said during their time together, while Belafonte was in his mid-80s, he was still convening meetings almost every day with people like actor Danny Glover or singer Pete Seeger to plan whatever the next protest was.

"It's an astounding character, an astounding man, who could do all these things and still just be one person," Shnayerson said.

It wasn't just protests Belafonte could bring together; at a time when entertainers like Kenny Rogers, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and more seemed close to retiring, Belafonte sparked and executed a plan to get them in the same room to record the charity single, "We Are The World."

"He had the modesty to not inflict himself on that group of people," Shnayerson said. "Michael Jackson was the one that everyone sort of catered to anyway, you know. Michael was more than happy to be the sort of guide to this amazing recording. But Harry was there, once again, underwriting it, making it happen."

That project seemed to exemplify Belafonte's spirit, because according to Shnayerson, Belafonte believed he was an activist who became an artist, not the other way around.

"An artist, an activist — really in the end, he embodied them both," Shnayerson said.

Harry Belafonte holds hands with his daughter, Gina Belafonte

Gina Belafonte: We Need to Reclaim Narratives of Marginalized Peoples

Gina and her father, Harry Belafonte, founded a social justice non-profit called Sankofa to reignite the activist tradition.