Remembering Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte died at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York, United States of America on Tuesday 25 April 2023.  He was 96.

Remembering Harry Belafonte, his early years, success as an entertainer and work as a political activist.  

Young Belafonte

Early Years

Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr., known as Harry Belafonte, was born on 1 March 1927 in Harlem, New York, United States of America.  His father Harold George Bellanfanti, Sr. from Martinique, later changed the family name to Belafonte.  Senior Bellanfanti worked occasionally as a chef on merchant ships, so was often away from home.  His mother, Melvine Bellanfanti (nee Love), from Jamaica, was a domestic. 

In 1936, his mother, Harry and younger brother Dennis, moved to Jamaica. Unable to find work there, his mother soon returned to New York, leaving her sons to be looked after by relatives.  Leaving kids to be brought up by relatives, especially grandparents, is a common feature of Jamaican life.  After spending some of their formative years in Jamaica, in 1940 the brothers rejoined their mother in Harlem.


Sidney Poitier and Belafonte

Interested in acting Belafonte enrolled at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop, where his classmates included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis.  The lifelong friendship between Belafonte and Sidney Poitier started when they both worked as stagehands at the American Negro Theater in Manhattan.

Finding anything other than what he called “Uncle Tom” roles proved difficult, and even though singing was little more than a hobby, it was as a singer and not an actor that Belafonte found an audience. 

Belafonte Winning Emmy

As a result, Belafonte is best known for his pioneering work in the music industry, and almost single-handedly igniting a craze for Caribbean music with hit records like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His album “Calypso,” which included both those songs, reached the top of the Billboard album chart shortly after its release in 1956 and stayed there for 31 weeks. Coming just before the breakthrough of Elvis Presley, it was said to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies. 

Performing a repertoire including the calypso standard “Hold ’em Joe” and his arrangement of the folk song “Mark Twain,” Belafonte won enthusiastic reviews, television bookings and a Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical. 

In 1960, Belafonte was the first for Black performer to win an Emmy Award for his work on the TV special “Tonight With Belafonte”.  The deal for five more shows were cancelled by sponsor, cosmetics company Revlon.  The deal fell apart when Belafonte did not adhere to Revlon’s orders not to feature Black and White performers together. The taping of a 1968 show was interrupted when Petula Clark touched Belafonte’s arm and the sponsor Chrysler-Plymouth demanded a retake. The producer refused. Years later the sponsor apologised, with Belafonte responding that the apology came “one hundred years too late.”

Belafonte and King

In 1970 Belafonte returned to the big screen with the drama The Angel Levine.  Later film credits include Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), The Player (1992), Kansas City (1996), Bobby (2006), and BlacKkKlansman (2018).  In 1987 Belafonte produced a Broadway play about apartheid entitled Asinamali!”

In 1994 Belafonte was awarded the National Medal of Arts.  In 2022 he was selected for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – Early Influence category.

Belafonte owned his own music publishing firm and a film production company.

Political Activism

Nelson Mandela with Belafonte

Throughout his career, Belafonte was involved in various causes, concentrating on political activism and charitable works.

Belafonte recounted: “Eleanor Roosevelt just walked into my life. And she turned it around. Dr. King called me on the phone one day. Malcolm X knocked at the door one day. Nelson Mandela, he and I had an exchange of letters while he was in prison.  And just these things kept emerging. And, each time, I saw opportunity to become involved in what their struggle and our struggle was about, and felt I would make as big a difference as I could.” 

Belafonte in South Africa

Belafonte was a supporter of the civil rights movement and a close confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the 1980s Belafonte helped organise a cultural boycott of South Africa as well as the Live Aid concert and the all-star recording in 1985 of “We Are the World.”  The “We Are the World” song raised $64 million for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Belafonte faced criticism for meeting with leftist leaders like Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. But he never stopped speaking out against racism in America.

Older Belafonte

In 1987 Belafonte became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and acted as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues. In 1989 he received the Kennedy Center Honors. In 2014 Belafonte received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy’s 6th Annual Governors Awards.

Belafonte was a vocal critic of the policies of the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations. On Election Day 2016, The Times published an opinion article by Mr. Belafonte urging people not to vote for Donald J. Trump, whom he called “feckless and immature.” “Mr. Trump asks us what we have to lose,” he wrote, referring to African American voters, “and we must answer: Only the dream, only everything.”

Belafonte remained politically active to the end.

You may ask, did I meet Belafonte?  No, but the closest I got to meeting him was knowing his much younger cousin Pearl Love.  For a year Pearl and myself were class mates at Wolmer’s Girls School vying for last place in spelling. 

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