Born in East 70th Street in New York in 1927 to a Jamaican mother and Martiniquan father, Harry Belafonte was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood. He endured poverty and racial discrimination, even from members of his own family including his father, who preferred whiter colored skin. This explains several strong reasons to why Belafonte is so passionate about campaigning for human rights and for social change. Eventually he moved with his mother and brother to Kingston in Jamaica when he was nine, after his father left them for a white woman. Although Kingston seemed to be a more suited area to live, Belafonte still experienced troubled times. The majority of his fellow classmates were British, making it difficult to fit in with his American customs. Despite this alienated youth, Belafonte soon discovered the local Kingston music scene. The young Belafonte became influenced by the songs of the Calypso singers in the streets, providing the first steps into his interest in music.
Despite his satisfied life in Jamaica, Belafonte’s mother soon moved him back to New York for the better chance of finding work. Here he experienced further racial tension, and in 1944 he joined the U.S. Navy, becoming involved in the Second World War in order to escape his own unhappiness. It was during this time that he began to enlarge his vision of the world, and became aware that there was more to life than poverty, loneliness and basic survival, embracing his own social identity. After leaving the Navy, Belafonte pursued a career in acting after witnessing a performance of the American Negro Theater. This inspired him to begin training at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research. Studying under the renowned German director Erwin Piscator, he faced stiff competition with his classmates Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis.
In 1953 Belafonte was in his film debut, co-staring with Dorothy Dandridge in Bright Road and the following year in his first Broadway musical he won the 1954 best featured actor Tony award for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. This was the start to a long and varied film and stage career as actor, producer, composer and lyricist. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway show 3 For Tonight co-starring the legendary dance team of Marge and Gower Champion. That year they went on a national tour during which Belafonte, as the only African American in the company, faced significant opposition and hardship.
Whilst living in the creative hub of Greenwich Village during the late 1940s and early 1950s, he began performing as a jazz vocalist and singer of folksongs in nightclubs. In 1955 he had the lead role in Holiday in Trinidad, a segment on NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour and started to record singles and albums that featured folk material, landing his first recording deal in 1949.
Belafonte soon shot to stardom with his 1956 album Calypso, becoming the first million-selling LP in American entertainment history. It launched a fad for Calypso in the United States that lasted into 1957. Though the album included only two actual Calypsos, the songs ‘Brown Skinned Girl’ and ‘Man Smart (Woman Smarter)’ generated widespread public interest in the music and other types of Caribbean songs. Belafonte himself never wanted to be typecast as a Calypso singer; for him, Calypso was only one part of the rich international repertoire of folk and popular songs. The well known ‘The Banana Boat Song (Day O)’ also featured in this album, and held a certain significance to Belafonte; the song made reference to his father, mother, uncles, and the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica.
Although Belafonte had become an accomplished singer and actor, the life of a black citizen in 1960s America was far from easy and he was still confronted with the same Jim Crow laws and prejudices of the time. Always outspoken, Belafonte found inspiration for his activism from such figures as singer Paul Robeson, writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 1950s, Belafonte met King and the pair soon became good friends. He began to emerge as a strong voice for the civil rights movement and provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council and participated in numerous rallies and protests. Belafonte was with King when the civil rights leader gave his famous I Have A Dream speech in Washington D.C., and visited with him days before King was assassinated in 1968.
In the 1980s, Belafonte led an effort to help people in Africa record a song with other celebrities, which would be sold to raise funds to provide famine relief in Ethiopia. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, We Are the World was released in 1985, raising millions of dollars and becoming an international hit. Over the years, Belafonte has supported many other important causes as well. A goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the performer also campaigned to end the practice of apartheid in South Africa, and has spoken out against U.S. military actions in Iraq.
Belafonte held a music career that flourished until the mid 1970s, making way for other Caribbean drawn talent such as Calypso Rose, the undisputed ‘Queen of Calypso’. Focusing more on his activism and acting career, Belafonte soon returned to acting in the mid 1990s and starred in two films. In 1996 he was named best supporting actor by the New York Film Critics Circle for Robert Altman’s Kansas City. His final dramatic role was in Emilio Estevez’s 2006 film Bobby, about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, for which he was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Today, Belafonte is still active in his campaigning efforts. His extraordinarily life has come from an overwhelming desire to abolish human suffering, resulting in marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil-rights era, working against apartheid in South Africa, fighting hunger through his instrumental work with USA for Africa and, most recently, working to combat gang violence through programmes with inner-city youth.
For more information on Harry Belafonte’s career, we recommend the film Sing Your Song (2012). Watch the trailer here: