When Harry Belafonte died earlier this week, initial reports were divided on how to refer to him. As a singer, most famous for “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”? As an actor, with starring roles in Carmen Jones and Island In The Sun? Or as an activist, with a long history of support for civil rights in the US and abroad? Belafonte himself would have had no doubts: he was, he always insisted, an activist who became an actor.
Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927, the child of Caribbean parents of mixed heritage. He spent much of his childhood being passed around relatives in Jamaica. This exposed him to a wide range of music — “an environment that sang” he said, and one on which he drew for several albums. During the second world war he served in the US Navy, where he gained a political education from his fellow African-American seamen. After the war, he attended classes at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop, alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and Sydney Poitier, who became a life-long friend. Paul Robeson, who visited as a speaker, became his mentor. To pay for these classes, he started working as a singer in New York nightclubs.
In the mid-1950s, both of Belafonte’s careers exploded, fuelled by his stage presence and charisma. In 1954 he took the lead, opposite Dorothy Dandridge, in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, an adaptation of Bizet’s opera with an all-black cast. In the same year his debut album, Mark Twain and Other Folk Favourites, reached number three in the Billboard charts. But it was two years later that his third album, Calypso, broke sales records. It was the first record ever to reach a million sales in a year, and it was also the UK’s first million-selling album. Its signature track “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, a version of a Jamaican mento song, became his calling card: it was widely covered and even more widely sampled. Freddie Mercury improvised around it at Live Aid and Belafonte duetted on it with Fozzie Bear of the Muppets.
Belafonte parlayed his fame into advocacy. Some of the impact he had was simply through his work. It is no coincidence that his musical career peaked with an album devoted to Calypso, an inherently subversive Caribbean genre, the lyrics of which probe the faultlines between the powerful and the dispossessed. He was one of the most visible entertainers in the world, even while singing about the exploitation of dock workers; or appearing on film as a labour organiser teetering on the edge of a relationship with a white woman (Joan Fontaine’s character in Island In The Sun); or duetting on television with Petula Clark or Julie Andrews, to the fury of network sponsors. He refused on principle to appear in the 1959 film adaptation of the opera Porgy and Bess, which he saw as being guilty of racial stereotyping — although he did shortly afterwards release an album of songs from the opera with Lena Horne.
Belafonte, who married three times and had four children, used his earnings to bolster his causes of choice. He backed the civil rights campaign by donating bail money for protesters who were arrested. He supported Martin Luther King’s family, both before and after the minister’s assassination. He also bankrolled and raised funds for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and helped organise the March on Washington. His Upper West Side apartment served as the movement’s unofficial New York headquarters.
This commitment extended overseas. Belafonte was involved in the anti-apartheid movement and in campaigns against Aids in African countries. More controversially, and in keeping with the Popular Front affiliations of his youth, he spoke out in support of many of America’s enemies, from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chávez. He had a particular horror of the George W Bush administration, calling Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” and condemning secretary of state Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice as “slaves who live in the house”. He had strong criticisms to make of Barack Obama’s presidency too, although not to the point of refusing to back him.
Belafonte’s last pieces of work were in keeping with his politics. His final film appearance was a cameo role as an elderly civil rights activist in Spike Lee’s 2018 BlacKkKlansman. His last studio album, in 1988, was the under-appreciated Paradise In Gazankulu, a collection in a contemporary South African pop style, similar to Paul Simon’s Graceland; although unlike Simon, Belafonte directly addressed Apartheid and its impact. Then, as always, he managed to use his easy charm to deliver blunt political pronouncements.
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