Harry Belafonte is an icon that while very popular and beloved, does not always get the recognition he deserves. If the name Harry Belafonte doesn’t sound familiar to you, you may be familiar with the song, “Banana Boat (Day-O).” A few of the popular uses of it in media are in the 1988 movie Beetlejuice and The Muppet Show. His songs in Beetlejuice is how I personally discovered his music. It’s thanks to Belafonte that calypso music became popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of his other big hits include "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)", "Jamaica Farewell", and "Mary's Boy Child."
While the three-time Grammy winner is an icon for his musicianship, he is also worthy of more recognition for his impressive ability to break racial barriers. His success as a singer led to offers in other forms of entertainment, including movies. Mr. Belafonte soon became the first Black actor to achieve major success in Hollywood as a leading man. He was the first black man to win a Tony and an Emmy. He won the Tony for his role in the musical John Murray Anderson’s Almanac and the Emmy for “Tonight with Belafonte.” In 2022, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category.
Some other well-known films Belafonte has been in include 1954’s Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun, Odds Against Tomorrow, Buck and the Preacher, and Uptown Saturday Night, and most recently, Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman. Through his roles, he continued to be an activist and break racial barriers. In the 1957 film Island in the Sun, Belafonte starred as a Black politician who becomes involved with a woman from the white elite. This was one of Hollywood's earliest depictions of inter-racial romance. (Source)
Taken from the public domain. “Harry Belafonte at 1963 March on Washington (NARA)"
His Early Background
Belafonte had a binational upbringing, going between Jamaica and New York. His mother was Jamaican, and his father came from a French territory of Martinique. Despite becoming a music legend eventually, Belafonte faced struggles to get there. In his early life, he dropped out of high school due to his issues with dyslexia. He then joined the Navy where he served as a munitions loader during World War II. Outside of the military, he worked as a janitor and it’s through this job that he was given tickets to the American Negro Theater by his employer for a job well done. It’s this visit to the theater that changed Belafonte’s life forever. By watching the performances, he felt a pull to join them onstage. Belafonte soon began working on and performing in productions at the American Negro Theater.
Paul Robeson’s Influence
Paul Robeson is a musician, actor, and activist who became famous for his cultural accomplishments but also for his bold political activism. It was through his time at the theater that Belafonte met Robeson. The theater group took on a play was written by Sean O’Casey about the Irish rebellion against The British and translated the work into a Black environment. Paul Robeson attended one of the shows and stayed behind afterward to speak to the cast. He applauded them for the work they were doing for the Black community. “It was from Paul that I learned that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be. And that if art were put into the service of the human family, it could only enhance their betterment” (Source).
This meeting had a profound impact on Belafonte who finally felt like he saw a path for himself. Robeson answered the questions Belafonte had in his head such as “Where do Black people go? What do we do?” and “Can you beat the overwhelming odds of what's out here?” Robeson was an artist who spoke about the nobility of African history, sang songs in the African language Swahili, talked about the profound impact of Black culture, and this was inspiring to Belafonte, who wanted to do the same. “What Paul did very consciously, was to go into that world of Black life, Black art, extract from it those songs that he felt most comfortable with, and he felt were the one that most demonstrated our history, our struggle, and our dignity as a people” (Source).
Belafonte’s desire to use his platform for good was inspired by the musician/actor/activist Paul Robeson, but he carved his own path by incorporating layered meaning to the work songs of the Carribean culture, adding a note of aspiration and hope.
Once he established himself as an artist, Belafonte began to use his influence and money for activist purposes. He saw activism as a privilege and opportunity to help, not as some sort of sacrifice. He, with Robeson, wanted the needs of POC communities to be met, but the climate around the 1948 presidential election didn’t have that representation, so they created the Progressive party to run for office. “No one spoke for the suffering underclass. No one spoke for black hopes and aspirations. No one spoke up against the racist laws that existed with any effectiveness who was aspiring to office,” (Source). The pair supported Henry Wallace for the presidency, who challenged Jim Crow racism and sought to avert the Cold War.
While it was not the intention, the Progressive platform did attract socialists and communists, which led to most supporters of the Progressive party to be seen as communists. Robeson and Belafonte’s careers were put in jeopardy with Robeson’s passport getting revoked and Belafonte receiving targeted attacks by vigilante groups. He found himself blacklisted. This could have been an opportunity for him to renounce his views and activism to keep his career from falling off just as it was taking off, but instead Belafonte held his ground. He continued to champion for causes that he cared about and defended Robeson. He even refused to perform in the American South from 1954 until 1961 (Source).
Over the years, Belafonte’s activism was both national and international, as he aided the American struggle for racial equality, being a direct confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte has said that Robeson gave him his backbone, and King nourished his soul. They were both influential to him in different ways.
After meeting King in Harlem, New York, the pair became friends and political activism partners. Belafonte joined King and his wife during the 1958 Washington D.C. Youth March for Integrated Schools. When King was thrown into a Birmingham jail during the McCarthy Era, Belafonte raised $50,000 -- nearly $500,000 in current value -- to post his bail, at a time when the rise of pop music was bringing wealth and lavish lifestyles to many entertainers (Source). During John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Belafonte helped arrange meetings between him and Dr. King. He also served on the advisory committee for the (newly created) Peace Corps appointed by Kennedy.
He continued to fight for equality and peace over the years, especially in the political sphere. He was very outspoken out his dislike of George W. Bush and the US involvement in the Iraq War. Belafonte was also outspoken about his support of both Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. Belafonte said about Sanders, “I think he represents opportunity. I think he represents a moral imperative. I think he represents a certain kind of truth that's not often evidenced in the course of politics” (Source). He also became the honorary chairman for the 2017 Woman’s March on Washington, which took place the day after Trump’s inauguration.
James Foreman, executive secretary of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, left, Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and activist-singer Harry Belafonte appear during a press conference in Atlanta on April 30, 1965. Credit: AP Photo/Horace Cort.
On an international scale, Belafonte helped fight famine in Ethiopia and also joined the fight in South Africa's battle against apartheid. He spent his entire life opposing imperialism and supporting human rights struggles. “I've been to Rwanda. I've been to Zaire. I've been to South Africa. I've been to many places in the world. Wherever I see the resistance to tyranny, the resistance to oppression, I know that a banner is being carried forth, and will be waved high...the banner waved by the predecessors who fought in the International Brigade against fascism,” (Source).
In the 80s, Belafonte performed in the Live Aid concert and helped organize the multi-artist, Grammy Award-winning song "We Are the World" that raised funds for Africa to help with the AIDS crisis. Working with UNICEF, Belafonte traveled to Dakar, Senegal, where he served as chairman of the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children.
Belafonte was unafraid to fight for causes he believed in. The work he did, and the backlash he endured over the years is very admirable. There were many times when he could have let hate get to him, to back down when he faced resistance, but the strength he gathered from his mentors and his belief in equality kept him going. Even when he stopped making music, his activism continued, including him giving speeches on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While we have sadly lost this absolute icon in April 2023, his legacy continues to inspire future generations who, like Belafonte, refuse to resist and continue the fight and build upon the work done by previous generations.
Thanks for reading!
Written by Kristen Petronio