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Harry Belafonte: About

Harold George Belafonte, Jr. (born March 1, 1927 in Harlem, New York, United States) is a Jamaican-American musician, actor and social activist. One of the most successful American musicians in history, he was dubbed the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean musical style. Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes. In recent years (as of 2006), he has been a vocal critic of the policies of the Bush administration.

Youth and early career

From 1935 to 1939, he lived with his mother in the village of Aboukir in her native country of Jamaica. When he returned to New York he attended George Washington High School after which he joined the Navy and served during World War II. At the end of the 1940s, he took classes in acting along side Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, and Sidney Poitier. He subsequently received a Tony Award for his participation in John Murray Anderson's Almanac. He starred in several films during the 1950s. These include the all black cast Carmen Jones and the then controversial, Island in the Sun, for which he wrote and sang the title song. Although he has appeared in many films through the years, his focus shifted towards music, as his singing career began to soar in the early 1950s.


Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing the "Banana Boat Song," with its signature lyric "Day-O".

Belafonte started his career in music as a club singer in New York, to pay for his acting classes. At first he was a pop singer, but later he developed a keen interest in folk music. In 1952 he received a contract with RCA Victor. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) was 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 US charts. The album introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso", a title he wore with some reservations. While primarily known for his Calypso songs, Belafonte has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards.

Belafonte continued to record for RCA through the 1950s to the 1970s. Two live albums, both recorded at Carnegie Hall, enjoyed critical and commercial success. During the 1960s he introduced a number of artists to American audiences, most notably African singer Miriam Makeba and Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. His album Midnight Special featured the first-ever recorded appearance by a then young harmonica player named Bob Dylan. He received a Grammy Award for the albums Swing That Hammer (1960) and An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965). His album output in the 1970s slowed, after leaving RCA, and he released only one studio album with original material in the 1980s, coinciding with a stronger focus on politics and activism. In the late 1990s he released a live album and DVD on the Island Def Jam lable. The Long Road to Freedom, An Anthology of Black Music, a huge multi-artist project recorded during the 1960s and 1970s, was finally released in 2001.

Belafonte was the first man of color to win an Emmy, with his first solo TV special Tonight with Belafonte (1959). 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 favourite episode. Belafonte did a reprise of the song at Jim Henson's funeral in 1990.

He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and he won a Grammy Award in 2000 for lifetime achievement. He was named one of nine 2006 Impact Award recipients by AARP The Magazine.

Belafonte has been a major concert draw since his first world tour in 1956. He has continued to perform before audiences globally through the 1950s to the 2000s. He gave his last concerts in 2003, and in a recent interview stated that he has since retired from performing.

Political and humanitarian activism

Belafonte was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and one of Martin Luther King's confidants. During the McCarthy era he was blacklisted for his Civil Rights work. He bailed Martin Luther 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.

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. American newspapers published articles reporting the controversy and, when the special aired, it grabbed high viewing figures. Clark's gesture marked the first time in which two people of different races made friendly bodily contact on US television.

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. In 2002, Africare awarded him the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award for his efforts to assist Africa. He also hosted former South African President Nelson Mandela on his visit to the United States.

Belafonte has been involved in prostate cancer advocacy since 1996, when he was diagnosed and successfully treated for the disease.

In 2006, on June 27, Belafonte was the recipient of the BET Humanitarian Award at the 2006 BET Awards.

Controversial political statements

Belafonte began making controversial political statements in the early 1980s. He has, at various times, made statements praising Soviet peace initiatives, attacking the U.S. invasion of Grenada, praising the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, honoring Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and praising Fidel Castro.

Belafonte only achieved widespread attention for his political views, however, in 2002, when he began making a series of comments about President George W. Bush, catalyzed by Belafonte's disapproval of the Iraq War.

During an interview with Ted Leitner for San Diego's 760 KFMB, in October 2002, Belafonte referenced a quote made by the American civil rights era icon Malcolm X :

There was two kinds of slaves. There was the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes, they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good 'cause they ate his food and what he left... In those days he was called a 'house nigger.' And that's what we call him today, because we've still got some house niggers running around here.

Belafonte used the quote to characterize both former and current United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, both African-Americans, as "house slaves" for serving in Bush's cabinet, which he implied was racist, and for their refusal to stand against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was implying that, by going along with Bush's plans, the two were only serving the cause of their "master". He repeated the charge on an interview on Larry King Live. Powell and Rice both responded, with Powell calling the remarks "unfortunate" and Rice saying "I don't need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black." The comment was brought back up in an interview with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now! in 2006.

In August 2005, Belafonte made a similar analogy by saying "Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich."

In January of 2006, Belafonte led a delegation of activists including actor Danny Glover and activist/professor Cornel West which met with President of Venezuela Hugo Ch??vez. 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."

The comment ignited a great deal of controversy. Hillary Clinton refused to acknowledge his presence at an awards ceremony that featured both of them. 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."

On a Martin Luther King Day speech at Duke University in 2006, Belafonte claimed he found no difference between the American government and the hijackers of 9/11, saying, "What is the difference between that terrorist and other terrorists?"

In January 2006, in a speech to the annual meeting of the Arts Presenters Members Conference, Belafonte said, "We've come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended."

He recently signed a public statement comparing George W. Bush to Hitler and calling for his "regime" to be driven from power.

In reaction to criticism about his remarks Belafonte said: "I called Bush a terrorist. Let us examine the case; let's take a look." He first discussed the wrongs of the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. "Justice should be done. There was no question that precision should have been used to hunt down those who plotted the attacks," Belafonte said. Next he turned to the subject of comparing Bush to the terrorists. He said: "What do you call Bush after he tricked us into going to war against an enemy because of imaginary weapons of mass destruction? 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? What do you call a man who invades a country and helps cause the deaths of countless civilians in an attempt to create a government that he feels is just? 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."

On September 20, 2006, Harry eagerly introduced leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to a charity event in Harlem that day after Chavez addressed the UN.


His daughter, Shari Belafonte, is a photographer, model, singer and actress.

His older daughter, Adrienne Biesemeyer, is a child/family Licensed Professional Counselor and Executive Director of the Anir Foundation/Anir Experience which focuses on humanitarian work in Southern Africa.


I work for the United Nations. I go to places where enormous upheaval and pain and anguish exist. And a lot of it exists based upon American policy. Whom we support, whom we support as heads of state, what countries we've helped to overthrow, what leaders we've helped to diminish because they did not fit the mold we think they should fit, no matter how ill advised that thought may be. - Harry Belafonte interview on CNN Larry King Live, October 15, 2002

References in popular culture

  • In one episode of the British comedy television program, "Bottom", one of the main characters, Eddie, claims to have been in love once and states the object of his desires was named "Harry Belafonte". Richie replies, "You were in love with HARRY BELAFONTE?" to which Eddie reveals, "At least- that's what she said her name was".


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