Harry Belafonte

Published October 20, 2010

Harold George Belafonte, Jr. is one of the most successful American musicians in history and a lifelong advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes.

Born in Harlem, NY, from 1935 to 1939 he lived with his mother in her native country of Jamaica. When he returned to New York, he joined the Navy and served during World War II. At the end of the 1940s, he took classes in acting alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau and Sidney Poitier.

Belafonte started his career in music as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. His breakthrough album, “Calypso” (1956) was the first LP to sell over 1 million copies. 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 10, and 99 weeks on the U.S. charts. The album introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the “King of Calypso.” One of the songs included on the album is the now-famous “Banana Boat Song,” with its signature lyric "Day-O."

Belafonte was the first man of color to win an Emmy, earned from his first solo TV special, “Tonight with Belafonte” (1959). He also starred in several films. His first major film role was in “Bright Road,” alongside Dorothy Dandridge. The two also subsequently starred in the hit musical, “Carmen Jones.” Belafonte was offered the role of Porgy in “Porgy and Bess,” but refused it because he objected to the racial stereotyping of African Americans in the story. In the early 1970s, Belafonte briefly resurfaced in a number of films including two films in which he starred alongside Sidney Poitier, “Buck and the Preacher” (1972) and ‘Uptown Saturday Night” (1974). In 1984, he produced and scored the musical film “Beat Street,” dealing with the rise of hip-hop culture.

Belafonte’s success in the arts did not protect him from racial discrimination. He refused to perform in the South from 1954 until 1961. Belafonte was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and one of Martin Luther King’s confidants. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy named him cultural advisor to the Peace Corps. 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. During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted for his Civil Rights work.

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

Written by BET-Staff

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