Tribute to Harry Belafonte, a US icon of music, film, and civil rights

Tribute to Harry Belafonte, a civil rights crusader who worked tirelessly to eradicate segregation, as well as a close confidant of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

He was also the star of films that pushed discriminatory boundaries and antiquated clichés; an entertainer blacklisted during McCarthyism’s ferocious, suspicious fury.

When the US music business needed a legend to bring its super-egos together for the 1985 charity record We Are The World, it was Belafonte who had the credibility and respect to make it happen.

Nonetheless, he remained affable and self-deprecating to a fault, boasting that he was the world’s finest actor “based on the fact I’ve convinced so many people I’m a singer.”

This came from the man who won an Oscar and a slew of Grammys; the musician who gave the world the first million-copy-selling album; the performer who could switch between blues, folk, jazz, gospel, and, of course, calypso.

An Early Indication of Promise

Harold George Bellanfanti Jr was born in Harlem on March 1, 1927, the son of mixed-race West Indian immigrants. His ancestry was complicated.

“On both sides of my family, my aunts and uncles intermarried,” he mentioned. “If you could see my whole family congregated together, you would see every tonality of colour, from the darkest black, like my Uncle Hyne, to the ruddiest white, like my Uncle Eric – a Scotsman.”

Melvine, his mother, was a housekeeper who made him pledge never to let injustice go unpunished. “It stayed with me forever,” he said later.

“Whenever I came upon opportunities that were not offered to us because of race, because of poverty, I always remembered her counsel. She faced a life of endless rejection. I just marvelled at the way in which she seemed to endure.”

He was moved to live with his grandmother in Jamaica as a child to escape the grinding hardships of the Great Depression. He attended a British-style boarding school there, while his parents quietly divorced at home.

Belafonte returned to the United States in his early teens and joined the United States Navy during WWII, though he never saw active service or left the American mainland.

Jazz to Calypso

Demobbed, he married his first wife, Frances Margaret Byrd, made a career as a maintenance guy, and began hanging about New York’s American Negro Theatre. They initially assigned him to shift scenes. Then they cast him in little roles. He eventually took over as the lead.

He was cast in a mixed-race company alongside Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis, two other budding performers. The production included a song that piqued the interest of local talent scouts, and he was invited to perform at the Royal Roost, a jazz club.

He did a second take as he stepped on stage and saw the house band, thinking he’d be the sole performer. Charlie Parker was there with his saxophone. Miles Davis held his trumpet in the air. “I had to clear my throat about 90 times before I knew what key I was in,” Belafonte said.

Parker was a major inspiration since he was “playing in an incredible time for civilisation, when culture was leapfrogging ahead.” Belafonte was recruited on the spot but afterwards realised jazz wasn’t for him. ” There was little room for lyrics or story,” he explained. “I had to think exclusively in terms of vocal gymnastics.”

Also read: Tribute to Tina Turner: The Legendary Rock N Roll Icon

He soon won a Tony Award for his performance in the musical revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanack. He also appeared in the popular film musical Carmen Jones, albeit his voice was mysteriously overdubbed by an opera singer.

Then there was Calypso. The record became the first in US history to sell more than one million copies when it was released in 1956. It topped the Billboard charts for 31 weeks and established Belafonte as a household name.

The first song was Banana Boat Song, sometimes known as Day-O due to its popular chorus. It’s a traditional Jamaican folk song, not a calypso, performed from the perspective of dock workers putting fruit into ships. “Daylight come and me wan’ go home” became his anthem.

A string of hit albums followed. Mary’s Boy Child, his Christmas smash, sold a million copies in the United Kingdom alone, and Frank Sinatra hired him to perform at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Fame in the film industry

A succession of TV specials reinforced his popularity and allowed him to introduce fresh artists to US viewers. They included Nana Mouskouri, a rising Greek star, and Bob Dylan, a shuffling harmonica player who Belafonte thought had talent.

As an actor, Belafonte turned down the main part in a film adaptation of Porgy and Bess because he objected to the role’s racial stereotyping. In Island in the Sun, a film about interracial romance on a fictional Caribbean island, he played an aspiring politician who opposes the white ruling class.

In pre-civil rights America, the relationship between Belafonte’s character and the film’s leading lady, Joan Fontaine, was very contentious. The film was a huge hit, but Fontaine received a lot of backlash for her role. Some of it was provided by the Ku Klux Klan.

Off-screen, Belafonte was in a relationship with another of his co-stars, Joan Collins. The resulting affair occurred at the same time as his marriage ended, however the connection did not last. He married for the second time soon after the film’s premiere, to former dancer Julie Robinson.

The arrival of The Beatles marked a watershed moment. Belafonte’s musical approach became out of date, and his record sales fell as a result.

Civil Rights

He grew more active in the civil rights movement. During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted, faced racial slurs, and refused to play in the American South, where segregation was in effect.

He grew close to musician Paul Robeson, who opposed both colonialism in Africa and racial discrimination in the United States. He backed the Freedom Riders, who rode buses through the Southern states protesting racial inequality, and he looked up to Martin Luther King.

Belafonte financially supported Dr. King, who earned only $8,000 a year as a preacher. When his idol was put in Birmingham City jail, he also stood bail.

He entertained crowds campaigning for civil rights with his buddy Sidney Poitier and raised $60,000 for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the major civil rights organisations.

The sponsors attempted to cut the programme after Petula Clark lightly touched Belafonte’s arm during a TV spectacular.

“I’ve always accepted the fact that there’s a price to be paid for those who choose to step into the waters of social development, civil rights, fighting against racism,” he subsequently explained.

“I would rather have not been blacklisted, and perhaps made enough money to get me a private plane – but if in order to achieve that end I have to sell my soul, the answer is no.”

Later in his career, he had a noteworthy appearance on The Muppet Show, singing a spiritual alongside Muppets dressed as African tribal masks. It became Jim Henson’s favourite episode, and Belafonte later performed it at his memorial.

Nelson Mandela, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump

He was key in coordinating the recording of We Are The World in 1985, featuring the best of US singing and songwriting ability, to collect funds for African famine relief. He was later named a United Nations Children’s Fund goodwill ambassador.

Three years later, on Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, he organised a concert at London’s Wembley Stadium. Mandela later brought him to South Africa, where he supported a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of Aids. In 2008, he married for the third and final time to photographer Pamela Frank.

He has spoken out against the US embargo on Cuba and its assault of Grenada at various times. During the Iraq war, he compared black members of the Bush administration, notably Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, to servile slaves in the home of a white master.

Powell brushed off his words as “unfortunate.” An ecstatic Rice said, “I don’t need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black.”

He stated there was little difference between the Bush administration and the 9/11 hijackers: both, in his perspective, were terrorists. Convinced that global capitalism posed a clear and present risk to individual liberty, he informed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that thousands of Americans backed his revolution.

When the Oval Office had its first black president, Belafonte held him to the same standard as the others, blaming Barack Obama for failing to pay enough attention to the poor’s plight. When Donald Trump was elected, he became an instant co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington.

Belafonte worked as a performer, filmmaker, and outspoken campaigner well into his tenth decade. White Man’s Burden and Robert Altman’s jazz-age drama Kansas City both featured him opposite John Travolta. He received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2014.

In 2018, he made a dramatic cameo appearance as an elderly witness describing a brutal lynching that occurred in his childhood in Spike Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman.

It’s an outstanding performance. The young black actors in the audience are shown clinging to his every word, knowing that the character – and the man playing him – directly connects them to their grandparents’ fight for civil rights and Dr. King’s reputation.

Belafonte will be remembered as a terrific entertainer who refused to sit back and reap the benefits of his good fortune. He campaigned in the same way his mother had: by targeting political and social injustice wherever he found it.

Many people were enraged by his harsh words for individuals he believed were impeding development. But there was also this ironic acknowledgement that progress had been accomplished, which may have carried a tinge of pride in his own contribution to history.

“When I was born, I was coloured,” he said. “I soon became a negro. Not long after that I was black. Most recently, I was African-American. It seems we are on a roll.”

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