While Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte both faced the institutionalized prejudice of the time, Belafonte in many ways escaped much of the persecution that fell on Makeba, possibly because of his elegant speech and good looks or perhaps because his style of music made an easier transition into the pop charts.
[I remember sit-com personality Archie Bunker once proclaiming, “Harry Belafonte is not black, he’s just a good-looking white guy dipped in caramel.” This reveals both how far we’ve come—I don’t think you’d hear that today—and how far we have to go—it wasn’t very long ago that we found a bigot with a few redeeming qualities to be amusing.]
His path to becoming “King of Calypso” was full of interesting anecdotes and unexpected turns of events. He was actually born in Harlem, but sent to live with his grandmother in Jamaica after his parents’ divorce. His mother thought it would be safer, however there he was exposed the exploitation of the black workers at the hands of the British colonists. In both places Harry’s life was struck by poverty, but it was in Jamaica that he developed a fondness for the local folk music and singing that would become his trademark many years later.
After a stint in the Navy during WW II, he found himself as a janitor in NY City. Strangely, it was not music that was his first love, but acting. He was struggling to afford acting classes, studying with classmates like Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau and Marlon Brando. He and his friend, Sidney Poitier, were so poor that they would share a ticket to the theater, one going for the first half and then summarizing the play at intermission for the other who would take the seat for the second half. When he was discovered singing, someone suggest he try his luck at the local jazz club. He was backed by the Charley Parker Band that night and soon became a regular, but he still saw himself as a club singer for the sole purpose of putting himself through acting school. He also performed with Miles Davis and a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan, and found that black acting roles were not as easy to get as he’d hoped. Belafonte continued to plant a foot in both worlds until he switched from jazz to the music of his youth. Once he released Calypso in 1956, there was no turning back. The album would be the first in history to sell over 1 million copies in the first year, and establish Harry as the harbinger of calypso in America.
“Day-O (the Banana Boat Song)” reflected the struggles of his family members in Jamaica, but for the most part his songs were less about protest and more about touching people’s lives in simple ways or making folks dance. His speech, on the other hand was all about protest: like Miriam Makeba, Belafonte took full advantage of his fame to address important issues of the day, often to the point of being criticized. But his popularity allowed him to get away with more and also introduced him to kindred spirits in politics, entertainment, philanthropy, and activism. Soon he was hanging around with Elanor Roosevelt, Jack and Robert Kennedy and more controversial figures like Stokely Carmichael and Paul Robeson (who released albums as a singer, protested tirelessly for civil rights, and played in the NFL—all at the same time!) Perhaps he was closest to Dr. Martin Luther King, whom he exchanged ideas with and even supported financially at times (as a preacher, King made $8,000 a year).
Belafonte did realize his dream of being an actor in the end. Both he and Makeba would make several movie and TV appearances and inspire numerous books and movies about their lives. Harry filled in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1968 and among his interview guests were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. His accolades and awards are too numerous to mention, and much to his credit, he’s still speaking out today at nearly 90 years old. The most recent footage I’ve seen is right after the 2016 election. Barack Obama is seated on one side of him and Hillary Clinton is on the other. He is speaking in his soft voice and strong words about the failure of the Democratic Party. Barack and Hillary are listening intently.
To return once more to “The Dash”, by Linda Ellis:
“…What matters is how we live and love, and how we spend our dash…”
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