An Icon Passes
Tribute by Michael Derek Roberts – Editor, Caribbean Times News
The charismatic and ultra-talented former U.S. Navy man and gifted singer have died. Harry Belafonte, the Jamerican Civil Rights fighter and confidante of the late great Dr. Martin Luther King, will be greatly missed for his sometimes crusty and ascorbic uncompromising voice against the racist and white supremacist status quo in the United States and indeed around the world indeed, as the Reverend Al Sharpton said at the news of his death of 96 years that “to say that Harry Belafonte was an icon is an understatement.
As well as performing global hits such as Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), winning a Tony Award for acting, and appearing in numerous feature films, Belafonte fought for various causes. He bankrolled numerous 1960s initiatives to bring civil rights to Black Americans; campaigned against poverty, apartheid, and Aids in Africa; and supported leftwing political figures such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Harry Belafonte was born in 1927 in working-class Harlem, New York, and spent eight years of his childhood in his impoverished parents’ home in Jamaica. He returned to New York to attend high school but struggled with dyslexia and dropped out in his early teens. Belafonte then worked odd jobs in markets and the city’s garment district to make ends meet. At 17 years old, he signed up for the U.S. Navy in March 1944, working as a munitions loader at a base in New Jersey.
At the war’s end, Belafonte worked as a janitor’s assistant but aspired to become an actor after watching plays at New York’s American Negro Theatre (along with fellow Caribbean-American and aspiring actor Sidney Poitier). Fiercely ambitious, he took acting classes – where his classmates included famous actors Marlon Brando and celebrated comic.
Walter Matthau. Belafonte paid for these classes by singing folk, pop, and jazz numbers at New York club gigs, where he was backed by groups whose members included Jazz greats Miles Davis and Charlie “Bird” Parker.
He released his debut album in 1954, a collection of traditional folk songs. His second album, Belafonte, was the first No 1 in the new U.S. Billboard album chart in March 1956, but its success was outdone by his third album the following year, Calypso, featuring songs from his Jamaican heritage. It brought the feelgood calypso style to many Americans for the first time and became the first album to sell more than a million copies in the U.S. Belafonte released 30 studio albums, plus collaborative albums with Nana Mouskouri, Lena Horne, and Miriam Makeba. The last release won him one of his two Grammy awards; he was later awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy and the Academy’s President’s merit award.
Belafonte maintained a robust acting career alongside music, winning a Tony award in 1954 for his appearance in the musical revue show John Murray Anderson’s Almanac and appearing in several films, most notably as one of the leads in Island in the Sun, along with James Mason, Joan Fontaine and Joan Collins, with whom he had an affair.
As he grew in stature and as a civil rights leader Belafonte was mentored by Martin Luther King Jr and Paul Robeson. He bailed King out of a Birmingham, Alabama, jail in 1963 and co-organizing the march on Washington that culminated in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He founded the Freedom Riders and SNCC, activists fighting unlawful segregation in the American South, and worked on voter registration drives.
He later focused on a series of African initiatives. He organized the all-star charity record We Are the World, raising more than $63m for famine relief, and his 1988 album, Paradise in Gazankulu, protested against apartheid in South Africa. He was appointed a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1987 and later campaigned to eradicate AIDS from Africa. After recovering from prostate cancer in 1996, he advocated for awareness of the disease.
Harry Belafonte was born to Jamaican immigrants, grew up in poverty in Depression-era Harlem, and became a major Black crossover success in popular music. He went on to smash a series of barriers over five decades as a movie, T.V., and stage star. His artistic and humanitarian work frequently overlapped, reflecting his belief that “the role of art isn’t just to show life as it is but to show life as it should be.” The management and staff of CARIBBEAN TIMES NEWS extend sincere condolences to the family, fans, and friends of the late great Harry Belafonte.