UP EXPERT OPINION: Harry Belafonte: a life of music and social activism

Posted on May 22, 2023

Harry Belafonte, who recently died in New York at the age of 96, was a pioneering singer-actor who used his fame and wealth to support social causes.

Strikingly handsome and multitalented, Belafonte was the first artist to have sold 1-million records with his 1956 Calypso album. He was born in New York on March 1 1927, growing up in poverty. His Martiniquan father, Harold senior, worked as a chef on merchant ships, while his Jamaican mother, Melvine, was a domestic servant.

His abusive father abandoned the family when Harry was six, and a struggling Melvine took Harry and his younger brother, Dennis, back to Jamaica. He immersed himself in Caribbean culture, and fell into the warm embrace of his white grandmother, Jane: an experience which he later credited for his ease in interacting with diverse races and classes.   

The family returned to New York, but Harry soon dropped out of high school to join the US Navy in 1944, where black servicemen introduced him to the work of WEB Du Bois and other black intellectuals. He met his lifelong fellow Caribbean-American friend and rival, Sidney Poitier, with whom he trained at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem. Harry — a  light-skinned cultural polyglot — suffered from an identity crisis throughout his life: not fully black nor white; not fully Caribbean nor American.   

Belafonte met Marguerite Byrd, an African-American teacher, whom he married in 1949. He struggled to find success, singing at New York clubs like the Royal Roost, where jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker played with him. Harry moved from jazz to folk music before finally achieving great fame as the “Calypso King”.  He was soon touring America and Europe, playing to sell-out audiences.

Belafonte divorced Marguerite in 1957, marrying a white dancer, Julie Robinson. He divorced Robinson in 2004, and four years later, married a white photographer, Pamela Frank, who survives him along with four children from his first two marriages.  

After his singing success, Belafonte’s film and acting career took off. He starred in Bright Road (1953) and a year later in the Oscar-nominated Carmen Jones. He also won a Tony in 1954 for the musical Almanac. He won an Emmy for the 1959 television show Tonight with Belafonte. 

A Grammy followed a year later for best folk performance for the album Swing Dat Hammer. Another Grammy was awarded in 1965 for an album with Miriam Makeba, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. In 1972, Harry teamed up with Poitier — the first African-American man to win an Oscar — to produce Buck and the Preacher. His film career was limited because he refused many of the stereotypical roles available to black actors.

The sources of Belafonte’s social activism sprang from his poverty-stricken childhood; the widespread discrimination he encountered in America’s segregated navy and apartheid society, despite his fame. The globe-trotting African-American singer-actor-activist, Paul Robeson, would become Harry’s main inspiration, urging him to “sing your song and they will want to know who you are”: advice that inspired both Belafonte’s 2011 autobiography My Song, and the documentary about his activism, Sing Your Song, of the same year.

Belafonte met Martin Luther King, junior in 1956, holding fundraising concerts, and recruiting his Hollywood friends to join the March on Washington in 1963. He condemned the US trade embargo against Cuba, and defiantly visited Fidel Castro in Havana. He financially backed the anti-apartheid African-American lobby group TransAfrica, and supported the careers of SA musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

For seven decades, Belafonte remained uncompromising in his determination to act as America’s moral conscience. He described the warmongering US president George W Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world”; noted that: “Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed”; and dismissed Donald Trump as “feckless and immature”.


Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 22 May 2023

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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