Harry Belafonte, the iconic singer, actor and civil rights activist, turns 90 years old today. What better time to give the man his props.
Born on March 1st, 1927, he would struggle with poverty. He was the oldest son of Caribbean immigrants and spent his early years in New York City. He would later spend time in Jamaica with his maternal grandmother when his parents divorced. It is there where Belafonte would see the oppression of blacks by English authorities.
Belafonte returned to Harlem in 1939 to live with his mother and dropped out of school to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1944, serving in the Pacific Theater near the end of World War II.
After returning to New York yet again, he worked a series of odd jobs before finding inspiration at the American Negro Theater. From there, he studied at the Dramatic Workshop where he was classmates with Marlon Brandon and Walter Matthau, among others.
After performing in many American Negro Theater productions, Belafonte caught his big break singing for a class project. From there he got the opportunity to perform at the Royal Roost jazz club, where he linked up with greats like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He would land his first record deal in 1949.
He would debut on Broadway in 1953 in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, earning a Tony Award for his performance.His first movie was Bright Road in 1953 opposite Dorothy Dandridge. But it was the Otto Preminger-directed Carmen Jones in 1954 that solidified Belafonte as a film star.
His Calypso album was the first to sell a million copies but it caused some headaches as well.
Belafonte once explained to me how something as simple as a title had him being accused, as in a case of “Who Stole the Soul”, by Trinidadians during an interview to promote the black music anthology The Long Road to Freedom.
“In taking us to the Caribbean Islands from time to time my mother gave my brother and I the chance to see how my immediately family was dealing with oppression there,” he said. “They were the banana workers, the cabana workers, the sugar cane harvesters and the fisherman. The people in my family used the work song to get through a difficult day. The banana boat song was one of the songs they sang. When I put my first album together, I decided to sing familiar songs.”
“Only two songs on that album were actually Calypso songs,” he continued. “The rest were folk songs. Then RCA had the audacity to call me the King of Calypso, which infuriated the entire island of Trinidad. You see, there is a ritual that one has to go through in order to be anointed the King of Calypso. You have to go to Trinidad and do a carnival, you have to compete with a lot of other Calypsonians and you had to have written the most clever lyrics that really capture the imagination. The Trinidadians were a very critical mass of people who took no prisoners. When they heard my RCA appointed title in Trinidad they said, ‘He stole our songs, he stole our title.’ After that I had to spend years trying to convince them that I did not call myself that and I did not set out to usurp their title, but I soon made my peace with the people on the beautiful island of Trinidad. But, of course, Jamaicans loved it. Eventually all people in the Caribbean grew to love the songs.”
But as much as he was beloved for his movie star good looks and folk song classics, many would argue that his true legacy is to be written as a human rights activist, philanthropist and benefactor.
A close personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it wasn’t until later that the world learned of his generosity in helping sustain the King family. Today, as many who came up in the King era shun the Black Lives Matter movement, Dream Defenders and other groups, Belafonte still speaks on subjects pertinent to Black struggle and has given himself as a mentor to young activists while continuing to champion instances of art and activism.
On this day, we show how proud we are of this living, unbowed and uncompromising man. This man, who once called George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” and General Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice “house slaves”, has no chill when it comes to addressing bigotry and tyranny.
Belafonte sights Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. as being instrumental in helping him form his world view.