Well done sir!
Harry Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. on March 1, 1927 in Harlem, the son of West Indian immigrants, the New York Times reports. His father, from Martinique, worked on merchant ships as a chef, and spent lots of time away from the family. His mother, Melvine, was born in Jamaica and spent time as a domestic worker. Belafonte had a rough childhood, moving back and forth between New York and Jamaica as his mother struggled to find her footing. Belafonte would eventually drop out of high school in 1944, enlisting in the Navy where he first learned about the works of prominent African American scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois.
After being discharged, he enrolled in acting classes in New York alongside classmates Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis, making his first stage appearance at the American Negro Theater where he met lifelong friend Sidney Poitier. He found it hard to find roles outside of stereotypical ones and took to signing, performing in 1949 for two weeks at popular Midtown jazz nightclub, the Royal Roost.
Belafonte was an instant success and those two weeks turned into five months. He eventually shifted from popular jazz music to studying folk music and incorporating calypso. He found widespread success and single handedly created a Caribbean music craze. Hit songs like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” and “Jamaica Farewell,” were crossover hits and his album “Calypso,” reached the top of the Billboard charts in 1956, staying there for 31 weeks. Today, it is believed it was the first album by a solo artist to sell more than 1 million copies.
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Still, his albums were only matched by his live performances. By 1959, he had made history as the highest paid Black performer in history, with shows booked all around the country. Belafonte’s success quickly landed him roles on the big screen, where he became Hollywood’s leading man. His friend, Sidney Poitier, eventually claimed that spotlight.
However, by the late ‘50s, Belafonte had found a greater calling, using his platform to help the civil rights movement. He had become good friends with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and it was Belafonte’s funding that helped generate seed capital for the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Belafonte came through again as a fundraiser for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While becoming an activist was arduous, it was one that Belafonte accepted out of duty.
When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways.
In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings.
Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College.advertisement
I won’t forget…Rest well, sir. pic.twitter.com/31OC1Ajc0V
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) April 25, 2023
Over the course of his seven decade career, it was Belafonte’s resounding voice that served as the backdrop to his artistry and a constant reminder of the duty of entertainers to use their work in service of Black causes. Belafonte received a number of honors later in life including a 1989 Kenny Center Honor, a 1994, National Medal of Arts and a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2000. He is the subject of many documentaries and received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his lifelong commitment to civil rights causes.
Belafonte remained present over the years for the most pressing of civil liberties, speaking out during the Colin Kaepernick boycott and during the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump, Belafonte publishing a piece via The Times on election day urging people not to vote for Donald Trump. While Belafonte wrote that he was satisfied with his own life in his autobiography, he lamented that we were still facing many of the same issues from a half century ago.
The pioneering entertainer passed away this Tuesday, April 25th at his home in Manhattan. He was 96 years old and leaves behind a host of family and friends to mourn. As we remember his legacy, let us never forget that he fought till the end for us and there was no one who did it on a bigger stage than Mr. Harry Belafonte.
Rest well! Because of you, we can!
Cover photo: Entertainer & pioneering civil rights activist Harry Belafonte has joined the ancestors/Photo Courtesy of Charley Gallay/Getty Images/NAACP Image Awards