Adekeye Adebajo | Harry Belafonte: A melodious life of social activism
Harry Belafonte, who recently died in New York at the age of 96, was a pioneering Caribbean-American singer-actor who used his fame and wealth to support social causes. Belafonte was the first ever artiste to have sold a million records, with his 1956 Calypso album staying at number one on the Billboard charts for 31 weeks and introducing Caribbean music to a mainstream American audience. Strikingly handsome, multitalented, and versatile, he was the first black actor to win a Tony. He also won two Grammys, had a successful movie career in Hollywood, and contributed tremendously to the civil rights and anti-apartheid struggles.
Harold Bellanfanti, Jr was born in New York on March 1, 1927, growing up in poverty in a cramped apartment in which several families shared a communal toilet. His Caribbean parents were mixed race: his Martiniquan father, Harold S., worked as a chef on merchant ships, and his Jamaican mother, Melvine, worked as a domestic servant. His abusive father eventually abandoned the family when Harry was six, and three years later, a struggling Melvine took Harry and his younger brother, Dennis, (brought up as devout Catholics) back to Jamaica, where Harry was placed in a stifling British-style boarding school. He immersed himself in Jamaican culture and fell into the warm embrace of his white grandmother, Jane, an experience which he later credited for his ease in interacting with diverse races and classes. He loved his visits to banana markets, which would influence his trademark single The Banana Boat Song (Day-O) as well as the hit Jamaica Farewell.
The family returned to New York, but Harry struggled with dyslexia and soon dropped out of high school. He joined the US Navy in 1944, where black servicemen introduced him to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and other black intellectuals. He enrolled in Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop in New York and soon met his lifelong fellow Caribbean-American friend and rival, Sidney Poitier – described as “my first friend in life” – with whom he trained at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem. Harry - a light-skinned cultural polyglot - suffered from an identity crisis throughout his life: not fully black or white; not fully Caribbean or American.
It was also during this time that Belafonte met Marguerite Byrd, a middle-class African-American teacher, whom he married in 1949. She provided financial stability as Harry struggled to find success, singing at New York clubs like the Village Vanguard, the Blue Angel, and the Royal Roost (where jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker played with him). The eclectic Belafonte moved from jazz to folk music before finally achieving great fame as the “Calypso King”. He was soon touring America and Europe, playing to sell-out audiences. Harry divorced Marguerite in 1957 and married a white dancer, Julie Robinson. He divorced Robinson in 2004, and four years later, married a white photographer, Pamela Frank, who survives him along with four children from his first two marriages.
After his singing success, Belafonte’s film and acting career took off. He starred as a headteacher in Bright Road (1953) and a year later, with legendary African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge in the all-black film version of the Oscar-nominated Carmen Jones. He also won a Tony in 1954 for the musical Almanac. He won an Emmy in 1959 for the television show Tonight with Belafonte. A Grammy followed for Best Folk Performance in 1960 for the album Swing Dat Hammer. Another Grammy was awarded five years later for Best Folk Recording for an album with South African singer Miriam Makeba, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.
In 1972, Harry teamed up with Poitier – the first African-American male to win an Oscar for the 1963 Lilies of the Field, a role for which Belafonte had, ironically, been earmarked – to produce Buck and the Preacher, and two years later, Uptown Saturday Night. His last film role was a cameo appearance in Spike Lee’s 2018 BlackkKlansman. His movie career was limited because he refused many of the stereotypical roles available to black actors. Belafonte also regularly hired black and Hispanic apprentice film-makers.
The sources of Belafonte’s social activism sprang from his poverty-stricken childhood; the widespread discrimination he encountered in America’s segregated Navy; and the indignities that he continued to confront in apartheid America, being forced to use separate facilities despite his fame.
The globe-trotting African-American singer-actor-activist, Paul Robeson, would become Harry’s main inspiration. He consistently refused to abandon his mentor, embroiled in a MacCarthyite witch-hunt, who had urged him to “Sing your song and they will want to know who you are”, advice that stayed with Harry throughout his life as a lodestar and inspired both his 2011 autobiography, My Song, and the documentary about his activism, Sing Your Song, of the same year.
A 27-year old Belafonte met Martin Luther King, Jr. in 195 after the civil rights leader preached at New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was a life-changing experience, with Harry describing the civil rights stalwart as “the real deal, a leader both inspired and daunted by the burden he’d taken on”. It was the start of a 12-year friendship in which Belafonte became a confidant to the Nobel peace laureate. Harry became a disciple of non-violence, marching from Selma to Montgomery, holding fundraising concerts, and recruiting his Hollywood friends to join the March on Washington in 1963. Further afield, he condemned the US trade embargo against Cuba, defiantly visiting Fidel Castro in Havana.
Belafonte further contributed greatly to the anti-apartheid movement, financially backing the African-American lobby group TransAfrica, taking part in anti-apartheid protests and helping to support the careers of black South African musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela in the US. In 1985, Harry helped to organise the Grammy-winning superstar collaboration We Are the World, which raised funds for famine relief in Ethiopia.
Belafonte remained uncompromising in his determination to act as America’s moral conscience. He described the war-mongering president George W. Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world” and Bush’s Jamaican-American Secretary of State, Colin Powell as a “house slave”. He did not spare the first African-American president, noting: “For all of his smoothness and intellect, Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or black.” He dismissed Donald Trump as “feckless and immature”.
As the 2011 documentary Sing Your Song demonstrated, Belafonte was relentless in his activism as he constantly chased new causes to which to contribute. He strongly backed the Occupy movement in New York in 2011; he was a lifelong supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; he advocated gun control and joined the fight against gang violence; and he was active in his own Belafonte Foundation of Music and Arts. Harry was sometimes irritated with the mainstream US media imposing on him the burden of always having to act as the spokesman for black American social causes.
For all his achievements, Belafonte also had his critics. Black Power activists criticised his comfort with the white establishment; many black women criticised his philandering (including an affair with British actress Joan Collins) and his divorcing a black woman who had been critical to his success to marry a white woman; some Trinidadian Calypso musicians considered him an imposter; while other critics pointed to his addictive gambling and what they regarded as an oversized ego.
Belafonte was, however, articulate, reflective, and had a moral clarity that was often unnerving as he unwaveringly pursued worthy social causes for seven long decades. Robin Densselow noted that “Harry Belafonte was one of the most important and influential campaigning black musicians in American history”. Philip French described him as “a man of bravery and probity, a formidable contributor and witness to his times.”
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org