Music has often intertwined with politics, sometimes striking the right chord with it and sometimes being not so in harmony. Harry Belafonte, however, married the two and made sure politics was never estranged from his music or life.
Long before Sting, long before John Lennon and long before even Bob Marley, Belafonte set the gold standard for the political rockstar.
Even his most celebrated song “Day-O” was “about struggle, about black people in a colonized life doing the most grueling work,” Belafonte said in a 2011 interview. “I took that song and honed it into an anthem that the world loved.”
Belafonte, who died on April 25, 2023 at the age of 96 from what was described as congestive heart failure, was a voracious reader with a burning disdain for injustice.
Born March 1, 1927 in New York city to poor Caribbean immigrants, Belafonte’s political consciousness was shaped by the experience of growing up as the impoverished son of a woman who worked as a domestic servant.
“I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’ ” he once said. “My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.”
But Belafonte’s biggest contributions took place offstage. He was a key strategist, fundraiser and mediator for the civil rights movement. He continually risked his entertainment career – and at least once his life – for his activism.
With a belief system greatly inspired by fellow singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, Belafonte joined his mentor in opposing not only racial prejudice in the United States but also western colonialism in Africa. This was why he refused to perform in the American South from 1954 until 1961.
The 1950s to 60s was a big defining moment in Belafonte’s career as both singer and actor. He lent his celebrity to the cause of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest civil rights fighters of all time. The two became close friends and King often retired to Belafonte’s palatial New York apartment to talk strategy or escape the pressures of leading the civil rights movement.
Belafonte once said: “Paul Robeson had been my first great formative influence; you might say he gave me my backbone. Martin King was the second; he nourished my soul.”
During the 1963 Birmingham campaign, Belafonte bailed King out of the Birmingham, Alabama jail and raised $50,000 to release other civil rights protesters.
Belafonte also provided for King’s family since King earned only $8,000 ($80,000 in the 2020s) a year as a preacher.
That aside, Belanfonte contributed to the 1961 Freedom Rides, supported voter registration drives, and helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington.
During the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, Belafonte bankrolled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, flying to Mississippi that August with Sidney “To Sir, With Love” Poitier and $60,000 in cash and entertaining crowds in Greenwood.
Along the way, he courted controversy as well.
In 1968, Belafonte appeared on a Petula Clark primetime television special on NBC. In the middle of a duet of On the Path of Glory, Clark smiled and briefly touched Belafonte’s arm, which prompted complaints from Doyle Lott, the advertising manager of the show’s sponsor, Plymouth Motors. Lott wanted to retape the segment, but Clark, who had ownership of the special, told NBC that the performance would be shown intact or she would not allow it to be aired at all.
Newspapers reported the controversy, Lott was relieved of his responsibilities, and when the special aired, it attracted high ratings.
Belafonte taped an appearance on an episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to be aired on September 29, 1968, performing a controversial Mardi Gras number intercut with footage from the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. CBS censors deleted the segment. The full unedited content was broadcast in 1993 as part of a complete Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour syndication package.
In 1985, Belafonte helped organize the Grammy Award-winning song “We Are the World”, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa. He performed in the Live Aid concert that same year. In 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Following his appointment, Belafonte traveled to Dakar, Senegal, where he served as chairman of the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children. He also helped to raise funds—along with more than 20 other artists—in the largest concert ever held in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1994, he embarked on a mission to Rwanda and launched a media campaign to raise awareness of the needs of Rwandan children.
In 2001, Belafonte visited South Africa to support the campaign against HIV/AIDS. In 2004, Belafonte traveled to Kenya to stress the importance of educating children in the region.
Belafonte was a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy. He began making controversial political statements on the subject in the early 1980s. At various times, he made statements opposing the U.S. embargo on Cuba; praising Soviet peace initiatives; attacking the U.S. invasion of Grenada; praising the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; honoring Ethel and Julius Rosenberg; and praising Fidel Castro.
Belafonte is also known for his visit to Cuba that helped ensure hip-hop’s place in Cuban society. According to Geoffrey Baker’s article “Hip hop, Revolucion! Nationalizing Rap in Cuba”, in 1999, Belafonte met with representatives of the rap community immediately before meeting with Castro. This meeting resulted in Castro’s personal approval of, and hence the government’s involvement in, the incorporation of rap into his country’s culture.
In a 2003 interview, Belafonte reflected upon this meeting’s influence:
“When I went back to Havana a couple years later, the people in the hip-hop community came to see me and we hung out for a bit. They thanked me profusely and I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because your little conversation with Fidel and the Minister of Culture on hip-hop led to there being a special division within the ministry and we’ve got our own studio’.”
Belafonte achieved widespread attention for his political views in 2002 when he began making a series of comments about President George W. Bush, his administration and the Iraq War.
During an interview with Ted Leitner for San Diego’s 760 KFMB, on October 10, 2002, Belafonte referred to Malcolm X, saying:
“There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture.”
Belafonte used the quotation to characterize former United States Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Powell and Rice both responded, with Powell calling the remarks “unfortunate” and Rice saying, “I don’t need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black.”
In January 2006, Belafonte led a delegation of activists including actor Danny Glover and activist/professor Cornel West to meet with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. In 2005, Chávez, an outspoken Bush critic, initiated a program to provide cheaper heating oil for poor people in several areas of the United States. Belafonte supported this initiative. He was quoted as saying, during the meeting with Chávez, “No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people support your revolution.”
Belafonte and Glover met again with Chávez in 2006. The comment ignited a great deal of controversy. Hillary Clinton refused to acknowledge Belafonte’s presence at an awards ceremony that featured both of them.
During a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech at Duke University in 2006, Belafonte compared the American government to the hijackers of the September 11 attacks, saying, “What is the difference between that terrorist and other terrorists?”
In response to criticism about his remarks, Belafonte asked, “What do you call Bush when the war he put us in to date has killed almost as many Americans as died on 9/11 and the number of Americans wounded in war is almost triple? … By most definitions Bush can be considered a terrorist.” When he was asked about his expectation of criticism for his remarks on the war in Iraq, Belafonte responded, “Bring it on. Dissent is central to any democracy.”
In another interview, Belafonte remarked that while his comments may have been “hasty”, he felt that the Bush administration suffered from “arrogance wedded to ignorance” and its policies around the world were “morally bankrupt.”
In a January 2006 speech to the annual meeting of the Arts Presenters Members Conference, Belafonte referred to “the new Gestapo of Homeland Security,” saying, “You can be arrested and have no right to counsel!” During a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in January 2006, Belafonte said that if he could choose his epitaph, it would read “Harry Belafonte, Patriot.”
In 2011, Belafonte commented on the Obama administration and the role that popular opinion played in shaping its policies. “I think [Obama] plays the game that he plays because he sees no threat from evidencing concerns for the poor.
On December 9, 2012, in an interview with Al Sharpton on MSNBC, Belafonte expressed dismay that many political leaders in the United States continue to oppose Obama’s policies even after his reelection: “The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a third-world dictator and just put all of these guys in jail. You’re violating the American desire.”
As late as in 2020, Belafonte spoke with pride about the racial protests that spread across the US in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd, writing that “we have never had so many White allies, wailing to stand together for freedom, for honor, for a justice
Blessed with looks, wealth and fame, he could have been content with being the “King of Calypso” — the title bestowed upon him since the groundbreaking success of his 1956 hit “Day-O”, also known as The Banana Boat Song.
But he made another choice. Throughout his career, Belafonte was an advocate for political and humanitarian causes, such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement and USA for Africa. From 1987 until his death, he was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
He is survived by his wife Pamela, his children Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, Shari Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, David Belafonte, two stepchildren Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank and eight grandchildren.
** Banner picture: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images