A report by Silke Wünch for DW.com.
A New Yorker with Caribbean roots, Harry Belafonte spoke out against racism and injustice before the civil rights movement. As a musician, he sold millions of records. Belafonte turns 90 on March 1.
He was a singer, actor and entertainer – but also an activist for peace and human rights. Harry Belafonte isn’t only known for his light calypso sound that conquered the pop music world in the 1950s, but also for his commitment to the struggle against racial discrimination, marginalization, hunger, and poverty.
He was born in the New York district of Harlem to a sailor from the Carribbean island of Martinique and an unskilled worker from Jamaica. His father, who used to drink a lot, often beat his children – at times so badly that they ended up in the hospital. Finally, his father left the family, and his mother returned to the Carribbean with Harry and his siblings. Harry was given into the care of his grandmother with the following words: “Don’t let a single day pass by without making use of opportunities to fight for justice.”
Some years later, Harry Belafonte returned to New York, where he attended high school and dreamed of a career on stage. That, however, was particulary challenging in 1950s US, where racial segregation was still practiced, and people of color were not welcome in the limelight. But Harry refused to let himself be put off by that. He continued to prove his talent as an entertainer until he finally got a job in a renowned jazz club.
Belafonte’s steep career
Then things developed very quickly for Belafonte. After he got his first role in the movie “The Bright Road” in 1954, he made his breakthrough as an actor in “Carmen Jones” one year later. He followed that up with his first record contract. His song “Mathilda” instantaneously became a hit. In 1956, his album “Calypso” was released and sold more than a million copies – a huge and almost miraculous success, especially for a musician of color at that time. From then on, Harry Belafonte was seen as the “King of Calypso.” His “Banana Boat Song” made him a musical icon at a young age.
Belafonte made use of his popularity in order to express his clear stance against racism and discrimination. In 1957, he shot the film “Island in the Sun,” a love story between a black man and a white woman – which proved to be a scandal. Also in real life, he transgressed racial boundaries by marrying a white woman.
Messenger for peace and justice
Harry Belafonte has always been more than just a good-looking singer with a soft voice who sold 150 million records and starred in numerous movies. Without regard for the consequences it could have on his career, he continued to advocate human rights, struggling for minorities like African-Americans and Native Americans, as well as against apartheid in South Africa, the Vietnam War and nuclear armanent in the 1980s. Resulting from his continued commitment to the fight against poverty and hunger in the world, he was finally appointed a UNICEF ambassador.
His 90th birthday on March 1, 2017, sees the release of a comprehensive CD entitled “When Colors Come Together – The Legacy of Harry Belafonte.” It presents his most popular and important songs selected by Belafonte himself. He wanted to make sure that the selection of songs would reflect his social commitment.