In Memoriam: Harry Belafonte

April 25, 2023

In Memoriam:
Harry Belafonte

Earlier today, Harry Belafonte, American singer, activist, and actor, passed away at the age of ninety-six from congestive heart failure. Belafonte was arguably the most successful Caribbean-American pop star of his time, he popularized Jamaican folk songs and introduced Calypso music to an international audience. He was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York, the son of Jamaican-born parents. He spent much of his childhood living with his grandmother in Jamaica but returned to NYC to attend high school. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy and served during World War II. Belafonte found his love for music and performing while working as a janitor’s assistant during the 40s. He was gifted two theater tickets from a tenant in the building where he worked and became inspired. Belafonte continued to attend shows and began taking acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York. Belafonte began his musical career as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes and was signed to the Roost label in 1949. Though initially a pop singer, he quickly developed an interest in folk music and began learning material from the Library of Congress's American folk song archives.

Belafonte released his first single “Matilda” in 1953, and his debut album Calypso (1956) became the first LP in the world to sell over 1 million copies within a year. The album is number four on Billboard's "Top 100 Album" list and spent 31 weeks at number 1 on the U.S. charts. This album is considered responsible for introducing calypso music to American audiences and named Belafonte the "King of Calypso". Belafonte’s famous "Banana Boat Song" was included in the LP, and the song went on to reach number five on the pop charts. Though best known for his calypso music Belafonte recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes and American standards. He was the first Jamaican American to win an Emmy, for Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte (1959). During this time Belafonte found much success and continued to release works including the calypso album, Jump Up Calypso, which went on to become another million-seller, the Grammy award-winning album Swing Dat Hammer (1960), Midnight Special (1962), Belafonte at The Greek Theatre (1964), and the Grammy award-winning work An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965). In addition, Belafonte was featured in many TV specials alongside artists like Julie Andrews, Petula Clark, Lena Horne, and Nana Mouskouri. He released a fifth and final calypso album, Calypso Carnival (1971), and spent much of the 70s on tour across the world.

Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr. 

In addition to Belafonte’s music career, he also found success in the film industry. He starred in numerous films including Bright Road (1953), Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and more. He took a break from acting during the 60s but appeared in more films throughout the 70s including Poitier: Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). In 1984, Belafonte produced and scored the musical film Beat Street, highlighting the rise of hip-hop culture, and continued acting into the new century appearing in White Man's Burden (1995); and Kansas City (1996), the latter earned him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor. His final film appearance was in Spike Lee's Academy Award-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018). In addition to his work in the music and film industry, Belafonte was also an advocate of the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement. He opposed segregation and refused to tour in the American South from 1954-1961. Belafonte was also one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s close confidants. He helped provide for King's family, bailed MLK out of jail in 1963 during the Birmingham Campaign and raised $50,000 to release other civil rights protesters. Belafonte also contributed to the 1961 Freedom Rides, supported voter registration drives, and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.

Belafonte was also a supporter of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign; he appeared in a commercial for the candidate and performed at his presidential inaugural gala in 1961. Kennedy would later name Belafonte as a cultural advisor to the Peace Corps, and he would receive the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989. In addition to his work with the civil rights movement, Belafonte was also an advocate for political and humanitarian causes, such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the USA for Africa. From 1987 until his death, he was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He helped organize the Grammy Award-winning song "We Are the World" (1985) to raise funds for Africa, performed in the Live Aid concert (1985), and released an album of original work, Paradise in Gazankulu (1988), which contained ten protest songs against the former South African Apartheid policy. Belafonte was also active in the fight against AIDs, in 2001, he went to South Africa to support the campaign against HIV/AIDS and was awarded the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award for his efforts. After dedicating his life to the Civil Rights movement, in 2005, Belafonte founded The Gathering for Justice, whose mission is to end child incarceration and eliminate racial inequities in the justice system. Belafonte received many honors for his humanitarian work, including the Domestic Human Rights Award (2004), the BET Humanitarian Award (2006), the Impact Award from AARP The Magazine (2006), the NAACP's Spingarn Medal (2013), the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (2014), and was named a Grand Marshal of the New York City Pride Parade in 2013. 

Throughout his seven-decade career, Belafonte was honored with many awards and accolades for his work in the arts. He is an EGOT holder for his Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards, having been awarded three Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, Belafonte was awarded the National Medal of Arts (1994), an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music (2014) and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2022). Join us in honoring the later singer, actor, and activist, Harry Belafonte you will be missed. 

Check out some of Harry Belafonte's works and covers here: