Harry Belafonte – actor, singer, humanitarian, and civil rights pioneer – passed on April 25, 2023, aged 96 – leaving behind a magnificent legacy. There are few leaders in Belafonte’s realm: he was pure of heart and consistently propelled by a strong moral compass. He was never afraid to challenge travesties of human rights.
He achieved so many firsts during his decades-long career. He famously said that he was not an artist who became an activist, but rather, an activist who happened to be an artist. His iconic voice and his profound musicality soothed the souls of those sensitive enough to recognize the multifaceted layers of his sublime talent. From the instantly recognizable ‘Banana Boat Song’ (otherwise known as ‘Day O’, which became a universal anthem) to his blockbuster album, “Calypso”, which stayed at the top of the charts for 31 weeks, Harry Belafonte had a rare and unique talent. Even more compelling was how he lit up on stage. He had a magnetic presence, an engaging ability with audiences, and his facial expressions displayed the length and breadth of his emotions.
He went on to work with film and television producer, Jack K. Rollins, and he soared with everything that he touched. His lyrics were intergalactic, tying him to Albert Einstein, relativity, and the Hayden planetarium.
Belafonte became a ground-breaking actor and a civil rights giant. Born in Harlem, New York in 1927 to West Indian immigrant parents, he spent some of his youth in Jamaica, and that’s where the rhythms of that country inflected a distinct sound to his work. ‘Jamaica Farewell’ was one of his most famous songs and Belafonte was the first artist to sell over a million copies of an album. The sounds of his music ignited a craze in Caribbean music. Every party on earth – for decades to come -included Belafonte’s distinct Caribbean masterpieces.
He was not the first black entertainer to transcend racial barriers. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald had come before him, but his level of stardom was in a league of its own. Frankly, nobody in music was as big as Belafonte until Elvis came along.
He had a presence about him that was akin to Nelson Mandela. Belafonte commanded respect wherever he went. He was one of the first black actors to receive critical acclaim as a leading man in the movie ‘Island in the Sun’ (1957), but it was banned in parts of the South because of the inter-racial romance between Belafonte and Joan Fontaine.
Belafonte changed the world for the better and was a giant force for justice. He spent much of the late 1950s and beyond focused on the Civil Rights Movement with his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte performed in Alabama at some of Dr. King’s rallies. Later, he recalled how he would receive constant phone calls (oftentimes in the middle of the night) to help bail civil rights activists out of jail. He never hesitated to help his friends and a cause about which he was passionate. He led with absolute conviction. In 1963, he helped to organize the ‘March on Washington’ – advocating for the civil and economic rights of African Americans. He was a brilliant orator, and in that speech, he said, “as artists and as human beings, we rejoice in the knowledge that human experience has no color.”
In 1985, Belafonte was instrumental in helping to bring together A-list artists for the famous ‘We are the World’ song recording. The funds raised were designated to fight famine in Africa. It was a joyful and generous-hearted union of the best artists in the industry. The tenor of their voices emitted one of the most altruistic sounds of the century.
Belafonte went on to win every powerhouse award including an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Always mindful of his humble beginnings, he said in an interview, “I’ve won every award, and yet I wonder if I could have sung that song a little better; all of those things are wide open to improvement. But in terms of the choices in my life, the cadence where I stood, and where I chose to be, what I’ve said – there’s no retreat. I have no regrets.”