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Harry Belafonte Did It All

By Nate Parker | Celebrity | April 26, 2023 |

By Nate Parker | Celebrity | April 26, 2023 |


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Harry Belafonte died Tuesday at the age of 96. Belafonte was a musician, singer, songwriter, actor, and activist. His 1956 album Calypso was the first platinum record by a single artist and was instrumental in popularizing the genre in American culture. He worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. and was lifelong friends with fellow performer and activist Sidney Poitier. Belafonte’s professional career and activism were instrumental in bringing down or at the very least reducing barriers faced by Black Americans during some of the most politically-fraught periods in our recent history.

Born in Harlem in 1927, Belafonte was the son of Jamaican immigrants who spent his early years living with his grandmother on the island nation before returning to NYC in 1940. He quickly developed a love of theater and often shared a single seat with Poitier, swapping off between acts. He became a club singer to afford acting classes, and performed with legends like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. He performed in the best jazz clubs and in Vegas with the Rat Pack. His film career began in 1953 with Bright Road at a time when he was already recording Calypso. Like Poitier, Belafonte’s 1950s film choices were often about bridging the racial gap in audiences and society, flirting with Joan Fontaine in an interracial romance in Island In the Sun and working with a racist bank robber in Odds Against Tomorrow.

Harry Belafonte was a passionate civil rights advocate blacklisted by Joseph McCarthy. He worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., and provided financially for King’s family while the preacher worked. It was Belafonte who bailed King out of Birmingham and raised $50,000 to bail out other protesters. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and spent his life raising awareness of health, education, and civil rights problems faced by Blacks in America and Africa. Belafonte helped organize the “We Are the World” benefit in 1985 and performed in the Live Aid concert. He advocated for the arts and children in Senegal and Rwanda; organized efforts to fight HIV in South Africa; and worked with UNICEF since 1987. In 2007 he represented the organization in a Norwegian telethon that was so successful it totaled $10 donated per Norwegian inhabitant, a world record.

His political and humanitarian activism often put him at odds with both American political parties, despite performing at JFK’s inaugural gala. His relationship with Republicans was particularly contentious. He refused to perform in the American South until 1961 to protest segregation and violence against American Blacks. He opposed the trade embargo on Cuba and in 1999 met with Fidel Castro, and was involved in the Anti-Apartheid movement. He was very critical of George W. Bush and publicly spoke against America’s post-9/11 sprint to the Right. He was ahead of the curve when it came to his opposition of the second Iraq War, and referred to the freshly formed Department of Homeland Security as “the new Gestapo” and called George W. a terrorist on several occasions. Belafonte’s meeting with Hugo Chavez caused Hillary Clinton to snub him at an awards ceremony in 2006. As he said in 2007, “Dissent is central to any democracy.”

Between all this important work, Belafonte found time to make 12 feature films and numerous documentaries; recorded music for over 2 dozen albums; and made close to 30 television appearances, including the best damn performance ever recorded for The Muppet Show. He performed the song again at Jim Henson’s funeral in 1990.

Belafonte was married 3 times, and is survived by his wife Pamela Frank, and his 4 children.

Harry Belafonte was a legend who walked among legends. He worked with other towering performers from Sidney Poitier to Julie Andrews, Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan. He was a political and humanitarian activist for more than 60 years who worked tirelessly on campaigns benefiting people of color and the poverty-stricken. Unafraid of criticism and filled with a driving passion for both the arts and equality, Harry Belafonte did it all, and by his actions made the world better for it. And we are poorer without his voice.