13 Things To Know About The Extraordinary Life And Contributions Of Harry Belafonte

13 Things To Know About The Extraordinary Life And Contributions Of Harry Belafonte


Harry Belafonte on Jan. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Victoria Will, file)

Entertainment and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte died April 25 of congestive heart failure at his Manhattan home on the Upper West Side with his wife, Pamela, by his side, longtime spokesman Ken Sunshine told The Hollywood Reporter. He was 96 years old. Here are 13 things to know about the extraordinary life and contributions of Belafonte.

1. Belafonte: a man of recognition

Belafonte received many awards during his life, for a wide range of accomplishments–from singing to action to social justice work. He’s won three Grammy Awards (including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. In 1989, he received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2014.

2. Belafonte lived in Jamaica

He was born on March 1, 1927, in New York City to poor Caribbean immigrants. He grew up as the son of a poor Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant. His father worked as a cook on merchant ships but left the family when Belafonte was young. From 1932 to 1940, Belafonte lived with one of his grandmothers in her native country of Jamaica, where he attended Wolmer’s Schools. Upon returning to New York City, he attended George Washington High School, after which he joined the U.S. Navy and served during World War II, Britannica reported.

3. Music success

He became known as the Calypso King with the hit song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Belafonte released more than 30 albums during his career. The album “Calypso,” which featured “Day-O” and another hit, “Jamaica Farewell,” topped the Billboard pop album list for an incredible 31 weeks in 1956 and is credited as the first LP to sell 1 million copies, The Hollywood Reporter reported.

He signed with RCA Records and released two albums in 1956–“Belafonte,” which also made it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and “Calypso.”

“When I sing the ‘Banana Boat Song,’ the song is a work song,” Belafonte said in a 2011 interview with NPR. “It’s about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid, and they’re begging the tallyman to come and give them an honest count — counting the bananas that I’ve picked, so I can be paid. And sometimes, when they can’t get money, they’ll give them a drink of rum.

“There’s a lyric in the song that says, ‘Work all night on a drink of rum.’ People sing and delight and dance and love it, but they don’t really understand unless they study the song that they’re singing, a work song that’s a song of rebellion.”

4. The MLK-Belafonte friendship

Belafonte became a major supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. He used his celebrity to garner funding for the movement. In her autobiography, Coretta Scott King said of Belafonte, “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open,” according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Standford University. He became a close confidant of King, who often would stay at Belafonte’s house to relax.


5. His acting career

Belafonte became a matinee idol and “rarely seen non-white sex symbol” in the 1950, The Hollywood Reporter reported. It wasn’t that is acting career was without backlash. In 1957, in film “Island in the Sun,” Belafonte’s politician character is romantically pursued by a rich white woman (played by Joan Fontaine). The storyline created much controversy at the time.

6. Practice led Belafonte to Carnegie Hall

IN April 1959 he appeared for two nights at the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City.

7. Marched for justice

Belafonte not only marched for civil rights, he organized. He rounded up celebrities for the Freedom March on Washington in 1963, when King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. He also participated in the Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery. He marched countless times over the years before his death for various social justice causes.

8. ‘We Are the World’

Belafonte spearheaded the rally of support behind the nonprofit organization USA for Africa, which was launched to end famine and spawned the 1985 single “We Are the World,” which brought together such artists as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles, among others. Belafone also masterminded the 1986 human-chain campaign Hands Across America, which benefited the U.S. poor, The Hollywood Reported reported.

9. Championed the fight against apartheid in South Africa

Belafonte fought not just in America for human rights but worldwide, he was very vocal in the toppling of the apartheid regime in South Africa and befriended South African activist Nelson Mandela.

“Tonight is no casual encounter for me,” Belafonte said during his Hersholdt acceptance speech as a Kennedy Center honoree in 1989. “Along with the trophy of honor, there is another layer that gives this journey this kind of wonderful Hollywood ending. To be rewarded by my peers for my work for human rights and civil rights and for peace — well, let me put it this way: It powerfully mutes the enemy’s thunder.”

10. Belafonte grew up poor

Belafonte grew up poor with his mother, a cleaning lady. He dropped out and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

11. When the acting bug bit

Working at the time as a janitor in New York, he attended a play at the American Negro Theater. So inspired, he decided to become an actor. He eventually studied acting at a workshop attended by classmates such as Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Bea Arthur.

12. He owned a club

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Belafonte bought a club in Greenwich Village and gravitated to folk music for a while.

13. Helped fellow artists

Belafonte used his standing in Hollywood to bring Black entertainers into the spotlight by producing “The Strollin’ Twenties,” a 1966 musical remembrance of Harlem in its heyday for CBS that featured Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Diahann Carroll, Nipsey Russell, and Joe Williams. He also produced the 1967 ABC project “A Time for Laughter,” which showcased comics Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and Moms Mabley.

Actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte from the documentary film “Sing Your Song,” poses for a portrait during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 21, 2011. Belafonte died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his New York home. He was 96. (AP Photo/Victoria Will, file)