With four decades in the entertainment business behind him, Harry Belafonte is not one to take fame lightly.
"It's been tremendously fun and tremendously flattering," he said. "But I think all of us who have made a name in this business have an obligation to do more than just entertain."It's important to keep things in their proper perspective," Belafonte said recently. "Why have this platform if we do not try to affect the way people in other areas of the world are living? We should be taken to task if we do not do the most we can with our talents, and that includes making people aware of situations that exist throughout the world."
Those aren't idle words for the Emmy- and Tony-award winning entertainer. Belafonte, 63, has dedicated his life to humanitarian causes, some of which have been "considered quite radical and controversial."
He was involved in the civil rights struggles in Selma, Ala., worked with Martin Luther King Jr., was a cultural adviser to the Peace Corps, and has been honored by such diverse groups as the American Jewish Congress, the NAACP, the City of Hope, UNICEF and the Boy Scouts.
Belafonte worked with producer Quincy Jones, entrepreneur Ken Kragen and dozens of top singers and musicians in creating "We Are the World" and USA for Africa, one of the largest and most successful world-hunger projects ever undertaken.
"The response was so enormous," Belafonte said. "I think the success of `We Are the World' set a pattern for other projects. After that came Hands Across America and Farm Aid and Amnesty International.
"Entertainers have started to join together to achieve something - and I'm glad if I could make a difference."
"I've found that all of my personal and artistic interests are intertwined. It's impossible for me to travel and not get involved in learning the culture and systems of other countries. And I can't perform without thinking of the origins of my music."
Most of those origins are "from the West Indies communities and Third World sources," he said.
"I've found that sound has endured - no, not just endured, it has grown - and today more and more musicians are influenced by it. Contemporary tastes are reflecting that now."
Audiences recognize those themes in the music that has become Belafonte's signature: "The Banana Boat Song ("Day-O")," "Marianne" and "Jamaica Farewell."
Unlike some performers, who complain about audiences with no imagination or interest in new releases, Belafonte says he loves "doing the traditional old songs for people. It is never dull for me."
He said the inclusion of his songs in recent movies, such as "Beetlejuice," helps perpetuate both the sound and his career.
Belafonte, a veteran of theater and small concert halls as well as major arenas, calls an appearance on "The Muppet Show' with Jim Henson "an absolutely wonderful experience" and says it heightened the interest in his music in a number of young people.
"Americans do not usually like things out of the ordinary, or things that are not uniquely their own. But they have accepted or adopted the West Indies and African sounds and integrated them into this culture."