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Harry Belafonte

Harold George Belafonte, Jr. (born March 1, 1927) is a Jamaican/Martinican American musician, actor and social activist. One of the most successful popular singers in history, he was dubbed the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s. Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing the "Banana Boat Song", with its signature lyric "Day-O". Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes. In recent years he has been a vocal critic of the policies of the Bush Administration.



Youth and early career

Harold George Belafonete, Jr. (as spelled at birth)[2] was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Melvine (née Love), a domestic worker, and Harold George Belafonete, Sr., a native of Martinique who worked as chef in the British Navy.[3][4][5][6] From 1935 to 1939, he lived with his grandmother in the village of Aboukir in her native country of Jamaica. When he returned to New York City he attended George Washington High School[7] after which he joined the Navy and served during World War II.[5] At the end of the 1940s, he took classes in acting alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and Sidney Poitier, while performing with the American Negro Theatre. He subsequently received a Tony Award for his participation in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson's Almanac.

Harry Belafonte

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Music career

Belafonte started his career in music as a club singer in New York, to pay for his acting classes. The first time he appeared in front of an audience he was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included Charlie Parker himself, Max Roach, and Miles Davis among others. At first he was a pop singer, launching his recording career on the Roost label in 1949, but later he developed a keen interest in folk music, learning material through the Library of Congress' American folk songs archives. With guitarist and friend Millard Thomas, Belafonte soon made his debut at the legendary jazz club The Village Vanguard. In 1952 he received a contract with RCA Victor.

His first wide-release single, which went on to become his "signature" song with audience participation in virtually all his live performances, was "Matilda," recorded April 27, 1953. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) became the first LP to sell over 1 million copies (Bing Crosby's White Christmas and Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons, both singles, had previously surpassed the 1 million mark). The album is number four on Billboard's "Top 100 Album" list for having spent 31 weeks at number 1, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the U.S. charts. The album introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso", a title he wore with some reservations, since he had no claims to any Calypso Monarch titles.

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One of the songs included in the album is the now famous "Banana Boat Song," which reached number five pop, and featured its signature lyric "Day-O". While primarily known for his Calypso songs, Belafonte has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards. His second-best hit, which came immediately after "The Banana Boat Song", was the novelty tune "Mama Look at Bubu", also known as "Mama Look a Boo-Boo" (originally recorded by Lord Melody in 1956), in which he sings humorously about misbehaving and disrespectful children. It reached number eleven on the pop chart.

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Belafonte continued to record for RCA through the 1950s to the 1970s. Two live albums, both recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1959 and 1960, enjoyed critical and commercial success. He was one of many entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the Inaugural gala of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. That same year he released his second Calypso album, Jump Up Calypso, which went on to become another million seller. During the 1960s he introduced a number of artists to American audiences, most notably South African singer Miriam Makeba and Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. His album Midnight Special (1962) featured the first-ever recorded appearance by a then young harmonica player named Bob Dylan.

As The Beatles and other stars from Britain began to dominate the U.S. pop charts, Belafonte's impact as a commercial force diminished; 1964's Belafonte At The Greek Theatre was his last album to appear in Billboard's Top 40. Belafonte has received a Grammy Award for the albums Swing Dat Hammer (1960) and An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965). The latter album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid. He has been awarded six Gold Records.[8]Belafonte's album output in the 1970s slowed after leaving RCA. He released only one album of original material in the 1980s, coinciding with a stronger focus on politics and activism. A soundtrack and video of a televised concert were released in 1997 by Island Records. The Long Road to Freedom, An Anthology of Black Music, a huge multi-artist project recorded during the 1960s and 1970s while he was still with RCA, was finally released by the label in 2001.

Belafonte was the first black man to win an Emmy, with his first solo TV special Tonight with Belafonte (1959). During the 1960s he appeared in a number of TV specials, alongside such artists as Julie Andrews, Petula Clark, Lena Horne, and Nana Mouskouri. He was also a guest star on a memorable episode of The Muppet Show in 1978, in which he sang his signature song "Day-O" on television for the very first time. However, the episode is best known for Belafonte singing the spiritual song, "Turn the World Around", that is performed with Muppets designed like African tribal masks. It has become one of the most famous performances in the series. It was reported to be Jim Henson's favorite episode, and Belafonte did a reprise of the song at Henson's funeral in 1990.

"Turn the World Around" was also included in the 2005 official hymnal supplement of the Unitarian Universalist Association, "Singing the Journey"[9]. Harry Belafonte received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in globally through the 1950s to the 2000s. He gave his last concert in 2003, and in a 2007 interview stated that he has since retired from performing.[10]

Harry Belafonte
Background information
Birth name Harold George Belafonete, Jr.[1]
Born March 1, 1927 (1927 -03-01) (age 82)
Genre(s) Calypso, Vocal
Years active 1949 - current
Label(s) RCA Victor

Film career

Harry Belafonte has starred in several films. His first major film role was in Bright Road (1953), in which he appeared alongside Dorothy Dandridge. The two subsequently starred in Otto Preminger's hit musical Carmen Jones (1954). Ironically Belafonte's lyrics in the film were dubbed by an opera singer, as Belafonte's own singing voice was seen as unsuitable for the role. Using his star clout, Belafonte was subsequently able to realize several then controversial film roles. In 1957's Island in the Sun there are hints of an affair between Belafonte's character and Joan Fontaine. In 1959 he starred in and produced Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow, in which he plays a bank robber, uncomfortably teamed with a racist partner (Robert Ryan). He also co-starred with Inger Stevens in The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Belafonte was offered the role of Porgy in Otto Preminger's Porgy and Bess, but refused the role, because he objected to the racial stereotyping of blacks in the story.

Feeling dissatisfied with the film roles available to him, he abandoned film in favour of his music career during the 1960s. In the early 1970s Belafonte briefly resurfaced in a number of films including two films in which he starred alongside Sidney Poitier: Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). In 1984, Belafonte produced and scored the musical film Beat Street, dealing with the rise of hip-hop culture. Belafonte would not star in a major film again until the mid-1990s, when he appeared alongside John Travolta in the race-reverse drama White Man's Burden (1995) and in Robert Altman's jazz age drama Kansas City (1996). He also starred as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in the TV drama Swing Vote (1999). In late 2006, Belafonte appeared in the role of Nelson, a friend of an employee of the Ambassador Hotel played by Anthony Hopkins, in Bobby, Emilio Estevez's ensemble drama about the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Political and humanitarian activism

Belafonte's political beliefs are greatly inspired by the man that he still views to this day as his mentor, singer and activist Paul Robeson.[11] Paul Robeson was in his time a controversial figure for strongly supporting the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. He strongly opposed racial prejudice in the United States, and western colonialism in Africa. Like Robeson and other black entertainers, Belafonte's success in the arts did not protect him from racial discrimination, particularly in the South of the United States. As a result, he refused to perform in the South of the U.S. from 1954 until 1961. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy named Belafonte as cultural advisor to the Peace Corps. Belafonte was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and one of Martin Luther King's confidants. He provided for King's family, since King made only $8,000 a year as a preacher. Like many civil rights activists, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He bailed King out of the Birmingham City Jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned civil rights protesters. He financed the Freedom Rides, supported voter registration drives, and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963.

During "Freedom Summer" in 1964, Belafonte bankrolled the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, flying to Mississippi that August with $60,000 in cash and thrilling crowds in Greenwood with his "Banana Boat Song." In 1968, Belafonte appeared on a Petula Clark primetime television special on NBC. In the middle of a song, Clark smiled and briefly touched Belafonte's arm, which made the show's sponsor, Plymouth Motors, nervous. Plymouth wanted to cut out the segment, but Clark, who had ownership of the special, told NBC that the performance would be shown intact or she would not allow the special to be aired at all. American newspapers published articles reporting the controversy and, when the special aired, it grabbed high viewing figures.

Belafonte appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and performed a controversial "Mardi Gras" number with footage intercut from the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. CBS censors deleted the entire segment from the program. In 1985, he was one of the organizers behind the Grammy Award winning song "We Are the World," a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa, and performed in the Live Aid concert that same year. In 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador. Following his appointment, Belafonte travelled to Dakar, Senegal, where he served as chairman of the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children. He also helped to raise funds, alongside more than 20 other artists, in the largest concert ever held in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1994 he went on a mission to Rwanda, and launched a media campaign to raise awareness of the needs of Rwandan children. In 2001 he went to South Africa to support the campaign against HIV/AIDS. In 2002, Africare awarded him the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award for his efforts to assist Africa. In 2004 Belafonte went to Kenya to stress the importance of educating children in the region. Belafonte has been involved in prostate cancer advocacy since 1996, when he was diagnosed and successfully treated for the disease.[12]On June 27, 2006, Belafonte was the recipient of the BET Humanitarian Award at the 2006 BET Awards. He was named one of nine 2006 Impact Award recipients by AARP The Magazine.[13]Belafonte has been a long-time critic of U.S. foreign policy. He began making controversial political statements on this subject in the early 1980s. He has, at various times, made statements opposing the U.S. embargo on Cuba, praising Soviet peace initiatives, attacking the U.S. invasion of Grenada, praising the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, honouring Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and praising Fidel Castro.[14]

Harry Belafonte is additionally known for his visit to Cuba which helped ensure hip-hop’s place in Cuban society. According to Geoffrey Baker’s article “Hip hop, Revolucion! Nationalizing Rap n Cuba,” in 1999, Belafonte met with representatives of the rap community immediately before meeting with Fidel Castro. This meeting resulted in Castro’s personal approval of (and hence the government’s involvement in), the incorporation of rap into his country’s culture. [15] In a 2003 interview, Belafonte reflected upon this meeting’s influence: “When I went back to Havana a couple years later, the people in the hip-hop community came to see me and we hung out for a bit. They thanked me profusely and I said, why? and they said, because, your little conversation with Fidel and the Minister of Culture on hip-hop led to there being a special division within the ministry and we've got our own studio.” [16]Belafonte was involved in the anti-apartheid movement. He was the Master of Ceremonies at a reception honouring African National Congress President Oliver R. Tambo at Roosevelt House, Hunter College in New York City. The reception was held by the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) and The Africa Fund. [17] In December 2007 he endorsed John Edwards for the 2008 Presidential Election. In December 2007, Belafonte gave the keynote address and was awarded the Chief Justice Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award at the ACLU of Northern California's annual Bill of Rights Day Celebration. On 19th October 2007, Harry represented UNICEF on Norwegian television to support the annual telethon (TV Aksjonen) in support of that charity and helped raise a world record of $10 per inhabitant of Norway.

[edit] Opposition to the Bush Administration

Belafonte achieved widespread attention for his political views in 2002 when he began making a series of comments about President George W. Bush, his administration and the Iraq War. During an interview with Ted Leitner for San Diego's 760 KFMB, in October 2002, Belafonte referenced a quote made by Malcolm X.[18] Belafonte said: : "There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master's purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don't hear much from those who live in the pasture."Belafonte used the quote to characterize both former and current United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, both blacks. Powell and Rice both responded, with Powell calling the remarks "unfortunate"[19] and Rice saying "I don't need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black".[20] The comment was brought back up in an interview with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now! in 2006.[21]


In January 2006, Belafonte led a delegation of activists including actor Danny Glover and activist/professor Cornel West meeting with President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez. In 2005, Chávez, an outspoken Bush critic, initiated a program to provide cheaper heating fuel for poor people in several areas of the United States. Belafonte supported this initiative.[22] During the meeting with Chávez, Belafonte was quoted as saying, "No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says, we're here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people... support your revolution."[23] Belafonte and Glover met again with Chavez in 2006.[24]The comment ignited a great deal of controversy. Hillary Clinton refused to acknowledge his presence at an awards ceremony that featured both of them.[25] AARP, which had just named him one of their 10 Impact Award honorees 2006, released a statement following the remarks, saying, "AARP does not condone the manner and tone which he has chosen and finds his comments completely unacceptable".[26]On a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speech at Duke University in 2006, Belafonte compared the American government to the 9/11 hijackers, saying, "What is the difference between that terrorist and other terrorists?"[27]In response to criticism about his remarks, Belafonte asked, "What do you call Bush when the war he put us in to date has killed almost as many Americans as died on 9/11 and the number of Americans wounded in war is almost triple? [...] By most definitions Bush can be considered a terrorist." When he was asked about his expectation of criticism for his remarks on the war in Iraq, Belafonte responded: "Bring it on. Dissent is central to any democracy".[28][29]

In another interview, Belafonte remarked that while his comments may have been "hasty", nevertheless he felt the Bush administration suffered from "arrogance wedded to ignorance," and its policies around the world were "morally bankrupt".[30]In January 2006, in a speech to the annual meeting of the Arts Presenters Members Conference, Belafonte referred to "the new Gestapo of Homeland Security" saying "You can be arrested and have no right to counsel!"[31]During the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speech at the Duke University in January 2006, Belafonte said that if he could choose his epitaph, it would be, "Harry Belafonte, Patriot".[32]


Belafonte and Marguerite Byrd were married from 1948 to 1957. They have two daughters: Adrienne and Shari. Shari Belafonte, married to Sam Behrens, is a photographer, model, singer and actress. In 1997, Adrienne Biesemeyer and her daughter Rachel Blue[33] founded the Anir Foundation[34] and the Anir Experience. Anir focuses on humanitarian work in Southern Africa.

On March 8, 1957 Belafonte married his second wife, Julie Robinson (former dancer with the Katherine Dunham Company).[35] They have two children, David and Gina Belafonte. David Belafonte (a former model) is an Emmy award winning producer and the executive director of the family-held company Belafonte Enterprises Inc.[35] As a music producer he has been involved in most of Harry Belafonte's albums and tours. He married Danish model and singer Malena Mathiesen, in 2000. Gina is a TV and film actress and has worked with her father as coach and producer in over 6 films. Gina is one of the founding members of The Gathering For Justice a non profit organization inspired by her father, that is an inter-generational, intercultural organization working to reintroduce nonviolence to our communities to stop child incarceration .[35] She is married to actor Scott McCray.

Belafonte lives in a 14 room apartment on West End Avenue in New York City.

In October, 1998, Belafonte contributed a letter to Liv Ullman's book Letters to my Grandchildren[36]. Belafonte's grandchildren include Adrienne's son, Brian [37]and daughter, Rachel,[33] David's daughter, Sarafina and son, Amadeus as well as a Gina's daughter Maria.


  • Mark Twain and other Folk Favorites (1954) - RCA LPM1022
  • Belafonte (1956) - RCA LPM1150
  • Calypso (1956) - RCA LPM1248
  • An Evening with Belafonte (1957) - RCA LPM1402
  • Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean (1957) - RCA LPM1505
  • To Wish You a Merry Christmas (1958) RCA LPM1887
  • Belafonte Sings the Blues (1958) - RCA LPM1972
  • Love is a Gentle Thing (1959) - RCA LPM1927
  • Porgy and Bess (1959) - RCA LPM2019
  • Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959) - RCA LSO6006
  • My Lord What a Morning (1959) - RCA LSP2022
  • Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall (1960) - RCA LSO6007
  • Swing Dat Hammer (1960) - RCA LSP2194
  • Jump Up Calypso (1961) - RCA LSP2388
  • Midnight Special (1962) - RCA LSP2449
  • The Many Moods of Belafonte (1962) - RCA LSP2574
  • Streets I Have Walked (1963) - RCA LSP2695
  • Belafonte at The Greek Theatre (1964) - RCA LSO6009
  • Ballads, Blues and Boasters (1964) - LSP2953
  • En Gränslös Kväll På Operan (Swedish) (1966) - BEL-1
  • An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (1965) - LSP3420
  • An Evening with Belafonte/Mouskouri (1966)- RCA LSP3415
  • In My Quiet Room (1966) - RCA LSP3571
  • Calypso in Brass (1966) - RCA LSP3658
  • Belafonte on Campus (1967) - RCA LSP3779
  • Belafonte Sings of Love (1968) - RCA LSP3938
  • Homeward Bound (1969) - RCA LSP4255
  • Belafonte By Request (1970) - RCA LSP4301
  • Harry & Lena, For the Love of Life (1970) - RCA PRS295
  • The Warm Touch (1971) - RCA LSP4481
  • Calypso Carnival (1971) - RCA LSP4521
  • Belafonte...Live (1972) - RCA VPSX6077
  • Play Me (1973) - RCA APL1-0094
  • Concert in Japan (1974) - RCA R4P5054 - quadraphonic recording
  • Turn the World Around (1977) - CBS CB86045
  • Loving You is Where I Belong (1981) - CBS CB85254
  • We Are the World (1985)
  • Paradise in Gazankulu (1988) - EMI 746971-1
  • Belafonte '89 (1989) - EMI 134-2527252
  • An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Friends (1997) - Island Records 524384-2
  • The Long Road to Freedom, An Anthology of Black Music (2001) - Buddha Records 99756
  • Belafonte Live Europe (only on mp3) (2003)
  • The Essential Harry Belafonte (2005)


  • Bright Road (1953)
  • Carmen Jones (1954)
  • Island in the Sun (1957)
  • The Heart of Show Business (1957) (short subject)
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)
  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
  • King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis (1970) (documentary) (narrator)
  • The Angel Levine (1970)
  • Buck and the Preacher (1972)
  • Uptown Saturday Night (1974)
  • A veces miro mi vida (1982)
  • Drei Lieder (1983) (short subject)
  • Sag nein (1983) (documentary)
  • Der Schönste Traum (1984) (documentary)
  • We Shall Overcome (1989) (documentary) (narrator)
  • The Player (1992) (Cameo)
  • Ready to Wear (1994) (Cameo)
  • Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream (1995)
  • White Man's Burden (1995)
  • Jazz '34 (1996)
  • Kansas City (1996)
  • Scandalize My Name: Stories from the Blacklist (1998) (documentary)
  • Fidel (2001) (documentary)
  • XXI Century (2003) (documentary)
  • Conakry Kas (2003) (documentary)
  • Ladders (2004) (documentary) (narrator)
  • Mo & Me (2006) (documentary)
  • Bobby (2006)
  • Motherland (film)(2009) In Production(documentary)

Television work

  • Sugar Hill Times (1949-1950)
  • Tonight With Belafonte (1959)
  • Petula (1968)
  • A World in Music (1969)
  • Harry & Lena, For The Love Of Life (1969)
  • A World in Love (1970)
  • Free to Be… You and Me (1974)
  • The Muppet Show (1978)
  • Grambling's White Tiger (1981)
  • Don't Stop The Carnival (1985)
  • An Evening With Harry Belafonte And Friends (1997)
  • Swing Vote (1999)
  • Tanner on Tanner (2004)
  • That's What I'm Talking About (2006) (miniseries)
  • When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) (miniseries)

Stage work

  • John Murray Anderson's Almanac (December 10, 1953 - June 26, 1954)
  • 3 for Tonight (April 6 - June 18, 1955)
  • Moonbirds (October 9 - October 10, 1959) (producer)
  • Belafonte at the Palace (December 15, 1959 - closing date unknown)
  • Asinamali! (April 23 - May 17, 1987) (producer)

References and Notes

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