He’s On His Way
The year 1927. A boy was born into a Black family in Harlem, New York. As he grew up in a working class family, his childhood was no different from the common poor American children. He joined the US Navy at a young age during the Second World War. Then, his life suddenly took a surprising turn. Records suggest that one of his music albums held the top position in the US for nearly 31 weeks in a row. Later, Harry Belafonte (born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr; March 1, 1927 – April 25, 2023) emerged as a famous singer, actor and Civil Rights activist, who popularised calypso music with international audiences in the 1950s.
In fact, theatre changed Belafonte’s life after the war, as he got a chance to experience the acting skills of Afro-Americans. At that time, he wanted to become an actor. As he required a lot of money to learn acting, Belafonte started working as a club singer mainly to earn a handsome amount. This is how a young man entered the world of music. Thereafter, a series of events happened in his life like a fairy tale. He gradually became a star performer in the 20th Century US, which was dominated by the people who were White-skinned. His first solo album Calypso was released in 1956. More than one million copies of this album were sold, and his success prompted music companies to sign deals, worth millions of US Dollars, with Belafonte. He became the King of Calypso in the early 1960s. Jamaica Farewell, one of the most popular songs of Belafonte, was in this album. Every time he sang these songs in live shows, the audience went crazy. After Calypso, he released several popular albums, such as Belafonte at The Greek Theatre and Calypso Carnival.
Belafonte decided to concentrate on acting in the 1960s. He played different roles in various films. However, he returned to the world of music after spending little time in acting. In the meantime, a movement to protect the Rights of non-Whites rocked the US. Belafonte’s mentor Paul Leroy Robeson (April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) inspired the former to talk about oppressed people through music. It may be noted that Robeson was an American bass-baritone concert artist, stage and film actor, professional football player and activist, who became famous both for his cultural accomplishments and political stances.
Later, Belafonte came into contact with Martin Luther King Jr (born Michael King Jr; January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968), and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement (1955-68) triggered by King. He also joined the historic 1963 March in Washington DC, where Martin Luther King Jr famously declared: “I have a dream“. Even after the assassination of King, Belafonte helped the activist’s family in various ways on a regular basis. Once, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr admitted that Belafonte became her guardian after the demise of her father.
Even after his emergence as a social activist and a revolutionist, Belafonte bagged Tony Award and Grammy Award for his excellence in acting and music, respectively. He once stated in an interview that he was basically a social worker who later became an artist. However, he struggled a lot to become a singer. A number of famous singers used to rule the American music industry in the 1950s. It was not easy for a coloured person to establish himself in that industry, in spite of the presence of noted trumpeter and vocalist Louis Daniel Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971), nicknamed Satchmo, Satch and Pops. However, Belafonte managed to grab the attention of music lovers with his album Calypso that mainly featured the folk songs of the Caribbean Islands.
Belafonte’s popularity was at its peak until roughly the early 1960s. Gradually, singer-songwriters, like Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman; May 24, 1941), began to emerge and an entire new genre of music was created. The Beatles, too, made its debut in the 1960s. Interestingly, Dylan worked with Belafonte in his early days. Dylan played harmonica in Belafonte’s 1962 album Midnight Special. It was an old song of prisoners, who used to sing this while travelling by trains in the southern US states. It was the first official recording of Dylan, although the experience was not so pleasant for Belafonte who had always been very particular and choosy about his music.
Understanding Belafonte, as an individual, is quite difficult. He directly criticised a US President, as well as former US Secretary of State Colin Luther Powell, a few years ago and served as the Brand Ambassador of UNICEF, apart from taking initiatives for providing the entire African continent with financial support. Such a person cannot be measured by common standards. Belafonte liked to consider himself as an active activist and supporter of the Civil Rights Movement throughout his life.
Belafonte largely withdrew himself from all sorts of activities in the last few years mainly because of his health condition. Many of his contemporary and next generation singers had a tendency to protest against social evils through their music. However, some of them had ego-problems. Belafonte was the glaring exception in this regard, as he did not get involved in any controversy. He concentrated only on his own works and protests. Belafonte was always very aware of his goals.
Belafonte used to believe that it was his duty to be with the poor. He elevated himself to another level through his songs in the mid-1980s. Several parts of Africa, including Ethiopia, experienced a severe famine at that period of time, and many Africans were facing financial difficulties. The situation in Africa prompted many renowned American artists, including Michael Jackson (August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009), to create the song ‘We Are The World‘. They encouraged the Americans to stand by the Africans. Belafonte, too, played a leading role in this initiative.
Born to a Jamaican immigrant family, the man, who shook the world with his songs and protests, passed away on April 25, 2023. However, bidding goodbye to a person, like Belafonte, is not so easy, as these people leave their invaluable creations for future generations. Their thoughts, too, remain with us. They flow from one generation to the next, and enrich human consciousness. The same can be said of John Lennon (born John Winston Ono Lennon; October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980), who continues to inspire people across the globe with his Imagine decades after his demise. A tired person may get rejuvenated while humming a song of the King of Calypso somewhere in this world in the same way. Belafonte’s songs shall always remind people to remain benevolent. Hence, it is not possible to bid him farewell.
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Great article! It’s amazing to learn more about the life and impact of Harry Belafonte. I’m curious, what do you think was the greatest contribution Belafonte made to the Civil Rights Movement?