Harry Belafonte – activist, humanitarian, & philanthropist

Harold George "Harry" Belafonte was born March 1, 1927 in poverty-stricken Harlem. He is an American singer, songwriter, actor and social activist. Today, Harry is dubbed ‘The King of the Calypso’ a title he copped due to his concomitant crossover appeal to black and white audiences. He is also known for his roles in several films such as bright Road and Cramer Jones. Moreover, Harry was one of the leading social activists of his time.

Early Life

Belafonte was the son of Melvine Love (Jamaican) and Harold George Bellanfanti (Martiniquan). As a youngster, he lived with his grandmother in Jamaica. After returning to New York City, he joined the Navy and served during World War II.

Upon discharge, Belafonte took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the influential German director Erwin Piscator alongside Marlon Brando,  Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur and Sidney Poitier.

Musical Career

As an upcoming actor, Belafonte began signing in New York clubs as a way to pay for his acting classes. Initially, he was a pop singer, launching his recording career on the Roost label in 1949, but later he developed a keen interest in folk music and calypso.


Belafonte’s first widely-released single, Matilda (1953) went on to become his “signature” song with audience participation in virtually all his live performances. Belafonte based his version on a 1954 recording by Jamaican folk singer Louise Bennett. His other smash hit was “Jump in the Line.” This was followed by his breakthrough album “Calypso” (1956) which became the first LP to sell over 1 million copies. Currently, 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 ten, and 99 weeks on the U.S. charts.

This way, Belafonte effectively introduced American audiences to Calypso music and became known as the "King of Calypso", a title he wore with reservations, since he had no claims to any Calypso titles.

Belafonte the ‘Calypsonian’

The ‘King of Calypso’ extensively popularised the Caribbean musical style, effectively giving it an international audience in the 1950s. He is best known for the hit single such as "The Banana Boat Song” with its signature lyrics – “Day-O” which has held significant value both then and still in current time. His songs were especially popular in middle class American households. Today, Harry stands out as one of the best-loved singers and entertainers of the 20th century.

Belafonte made an impact on screen, in addition to his recordings and stage performance. These achievements assisted him in his most vital passion: the civil rights cause.

Harry The Civil Rights Activist

As a young African American growing up in the United States, Belafonte faced the stereotypes of racial segregation and discrimination. Today, Harry stands as one who triumphed over a difficult childhood and racial barriers. Throughout his career he has been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes and was a vocal critic of the policies of the George W. Bush Administration.

Leading the Struggle

Belafonte was one of the most visible social lobbyists of the 1960s. He was constantly visible and marched for civil rights with the likes of Martin Luther King Jnr. Like King Jnr., Belafonte was convinced that nonviolence was the only means to affect change for African Americans. The on-going struggle to improve the lives of African Americans and blacks throughout the world occupied a great deal of his time and attention. With the help of other activist, Belafonte helped to effect great change.

Where Is He Now

Belafonte has two children with second wife, dancer Julie Robinson, to whom he was married for nearly 50 years. He also has two other children from his first marriage to Marguerite Byrd. He currently lives in New York with his third wife Pamela Frank. The couple wed in April 2008. The name Harry Belafonte bears different meanings for a man who wore many hats. Today, however, we can safely describe in the same way he describes himself, “Harry Belafonte, Patriot.”



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