Text by Dawoud Kringle
American musician, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte has died.
Belafonte was a popular and well respected singer and actor. His more famous songs included “Day-O,” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His roles in movies such as Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun, and White Man’s Burden cemented his place among the great American Actors.
Belafonte started his career in music as a New York City based club singer. He did this to raise money to pay for his acting classes. The first time he appeared in front of an audience, his backing band was led by Charlie Parker, and included Max Roach, and Miles Davis. After becoming a regular on the New York Music scene, he signed to the Roost label in 1949. This changed when he became interested in folk music. He studied material through the American folk songs archives of the Library of Congress. In 1953, he signed with RCA Victor, staying with the label until 1974. He released the single “Matilda,” the catchy Caribbean / audience participation form set the stage for his style of music. In 1956, his album “Calypso” became the first album to sell over a million copies in one year. The single “Day-O / Banana Boat Song” became his signature song, earning him the nickname “The King of Calypso.” In later years, he would experiment with folk, blues, gospel, show tunes, and American standards.
In 1959, Belafonte starred in Tonight With Belafonte, a nationally televised special that featured Odetta. Belafonte was the first Jamaican American to win an Emmy. He and Odetta released a song titled “There’s a hole in my Bucket,” in 1961. He recorded two live albums in 1959 and 1960, In 1961, Frank Sinatra included him (along with Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald) to perform at John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball. He was also responsible for introducing other artists to wider audiences, such as Miriam Makeba, Nana Moiskouri, and Bob Dylan.
In 1965 he released an album titled An Evening with Belafonte / Makeba, which dealt with the political plight of black Africans under South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Throughout the 1960s, Belafonte appeared on TV specials alongside such artists as Julie Andrews, Petula Clark, and Lena Horne. From February 5 to 9, 1968, Belafonte guest hosted The Tonight Show (subbing for Johnny Carson). His guests included Dr. Martin Luthor King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
After decades of astonishing musical accomplishments, he announced in 2007 that he was retiring from performing.
His film career began in 1953 where he played a supporting role to Dorothy Danderidge in Bright Road. After the success of 1957’s Island in the Sun, he starred in and produced Robert Wise’s Against All Odds through his company HarBel Productions. Belafonte appeared in many more films, among which are two with Sidney Poitier: Buck and the Preacher, and Uptown Saturday Night (1972 and 1974 respectively). One of his more controversial and adventurous roles was in White Man’s Burden: a film (where he co-starred with John Travolta) that depicted American life with racial roles reversed between whites and blacks.
Many of Belafonte’s biggest contributions were in the realm of civil rights activism. He was a key figure in the civil rights movement, and became a close friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte’s political consciousness was shaped by the experience of growing up as the impoverished son of a poor Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant. When asked when and why he became an activist, he was quoted as saying “I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both serve each other, but the activism is first.”
His disdain and intolerance for injustice continually put his entertainment career at risk. and almost cost him his life. In 1964, three civil rights workers were abducted in Philadelphia, Mississippi, beaten to death, lynched, and left in shallow graves. When the state refused to prosecute those responsible for the crime, the federal government stepped in and charged seven members of both local law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, with civil rights violations.
A year later, Belafonte and actor Sydney Poitier flew from Newark to Jackson, Mississippi with $70,000 in cash (much of it Belafonte’s own money). The cash would go towards funding the fight for civil rights in the deep south. With Poitier and Belafonte in the backseat, Their contact met them at the small airport, and drove them at 40 miles per hour hoping to thwart Highway Patrol cars already hidden along the route intent to catch them. En route, their car was attacked by a pickup with two-by-fours mounted on the grill. The truck slammed into them repeatedly, trying to force the small car off the road. This continued for several miles. At the final moment, a hastily convened procession of cars manned with SNCC volunteers arrived to form an impromptu protective convoy. Belafonte and Poitier endured the travels, never knowing if the next truck that pulled even with them would point a shotgun out of the passenger-side window. Numerous shots were fired at the cars in the small procession. The caravan survived the gauntlet and when Poitier and Belafonte, exhausted and bruised, walked into the small Elks Hall in Greenwood, they were met by screams of joy and impromptu freedom songs by the volunteers. Belafonte wrote in his autobiography, “Sidney and I had heard a lot of applause in our day, but never anything like those cheers. After weeks of lonely, scary fieldwork, these volunteers were wrung out and in despair. To have two of the biggest Black stars in the world walk in to show solidarity with them – meant a lot of them, and to us.”
After a career and life that can justifiably be called legendary, Belafonte died of congestive heart failure on April 25th, 2023. He was 96 years old.
MFM salutes the memory and legacy of a man whose life and career embodied the perfect blend of art and activism.