This past week, the world lost legendary artist and activist Harry Belafonte, who played a seminal role in our collective history. Mr. Belafonte’s lifelong legacy transcends music and entertainment. He was also integral in the fight for equality and justice for African Americans and other people of color. Mr. Belafonte was at the forefront of the battle and reshaped what it meant to break racial and societal barriers at the risk of his professional livelihood. Mr. Belafonte rose to the challenge and transcended beyond what was thought possible for any person of color during the 1950s.
Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr. was born in Harlem in 1927 to West Indian Immigrant parents during a time of segregation and racial disparity. Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr. went through the ebbs and flows of being a first-generation American to West Indian Immigrant parents during a time of segregation and racial disparity. Mr. Belafonte’s upbringing in New York and Jamaica exposed him to various musical styles. It was not until his experience as a member of the U.S. Navy during World War II that he truly understood the impact he could make in the African-American community. While serving, he found inspiration to fight for equal rights through the work of prolific writers like W.E.B. Du Bios and acclaimed actor, singer, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.
After being discharged from the U.S. Navy, Mr. Belafonte found his way to perform through the theatre. His first time taking the stage would be at the American Negro Theater in Manhattan, where he worked as a stagehand. He also began a friendship with a fellow theatrical novice, award-winning performer, and longtime friend of the Urban League, the late Sidney Poitier. Mr. Belafonte’s success on the stage would take him from Broadway to the top of the Billboard charts, thus becoming one of the most celebrated artists of his time. Known as the “King of Calypso,” Belafonte popularized the Caribbean musical genre with hits like “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His groundbreaking album “Calypso,” released in 1956, became the first LP to sell over a million copies, establishing him as an international star.
More than a musician, Belafonte committed himself to uplifting his community by being on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. As an unwavering advocate for civil rights and social justice throughout his life, Mr. Belafonte befriended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. early on in his career, becoming an ardent and committed supporter of his mission for peaceful action. In joining Dr. King’s quest towards equality, Mr. Belafonte provided the seed money to start Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He served as one of the early fundraisers for the SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Mr. Belafonte’s impact, however, went beyond funding the cause. From participating in the marches on Washington to standing side by side with civil rights leaders during dangerous times, Mr. Belafonte did not shy away from the mission. In addition to advocating for social justice, Mr. Belafonte used his bearing in Hollywood to provide workforce opportunities for the underserved. When the time came to film “The Angel Levine,” which he starred in and produced through his production company, the Harry Belafonte Enterprises, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, he hired 15 Black and Hispanic apprentices to learn filmmaking by working on the crew.
“About my own life, I have no complaints, yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago.”
Throughout his life, Harry Belafonte saw that the fight for equal justice was a marathon and carried the baton without hesitation. His work on social justice continued on various fronts, championing the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, advocating for marginalized communities’ rights, and addressing world hunger. Mr. Belafonte’s activism earned him numerous accolades, including the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 1989 and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014. Through his artistic achievements and commitment to humanitarian work, Mr. Belafonte left an indelible mark on the world, inspiring generations to strive for equality and social justice.
Reflecting on his life and impactful career, Mr. Belafonte shared the following in his autobiography, “About my own life, I have no complaints, yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago.”
The Los Angeles Urban League would disagree with this reflection. Throughout Mr. Belafonte’s life, he fought for justice, and equal opportunity in all areas, from fundamental civil rights to education and employment. Mr. Belafonte did not just sing the songs of justice, he demanded and lived it, and his music and advocacy were and will continue to be influential for generations.