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Who Was Harry Belafonte?
During this time, Belafonte was finding success as an actor: Debuting on Broadway in 1953, he won a Tony Award the following year for his work in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, in which he performed several of his own songs. Belafonte also appeared in another well-received musical revue, 3 for Tonight, in 1955.
Around this time, Belafonte launched his film career. He played a school principal opposite Dorothy Dandridge in his first movie, Bright Road (1953). The pair reunited the following year for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, a film adaptation of the Broadway musical (itself an adaptation of the Georges Bizet opera Carmen), with Belafonte starring as Joe alongside the Oscar-nominated Dandridge.
The success of Carmen Jones in 1954 made Belafonte a star, and soon, he became a music sensation. With RCA Victor Records, he released Calypso (1956), an album featuring his take on traditional Caribbean folk music. “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” proved to be a huge hit. More than just a popular tune, it also held special meaning for Belafonte: “That song is a way of life,” Belafonte later told The New York Times. “It’s a song about my father, my mother, my uncles, the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica.”
Belafonte was the first Black person to win an Emmy, for Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte (1959) and the first Black television producer. In 1970, he teamed up with singer Lena Horne for a one-hour TV special that showcased their talents. Belafonte continued to release albums into the 1970s, though his output slowed by the middle of the decade.
Social and Political Activism
Always outspoken, Belafonte found inspiration for his activism from such figures as singer Paul Robeson and scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. After he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s, the two became good friends, and Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the movement. He provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participated in numerous rallies and protests. Belafonte helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, in which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and again met with the civil rights leader shortly before King was assassinated in 1968.
Belafonte sometimes landed in hot water for his candidly expressed opinions. In 2006, he made headlines when he referred to President George W. Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world” for launching the war in Iraq. He also insulted two prominent Black members of the Bush administration, General Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, referring to them as “house slaves.” Despite media pressure, he steadfastly refused to apologize for his remarks. In regards to Powell and Rice, Belafonte said they were “serving those who continue to design our oppression.”
Belafonte achieved some of the highest honors possible over more than a half-century in the public eye. He was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Additionally, in 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards.
He was nominated for seven Emmys, 10 Grammys, and one Tony, winning four of the awards:
- Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series in 1960
- Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance in 1960
- Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording in 1965
- Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1954
Personal Life and Death
Belafonte was married three times and had four children.
His marriage to his first wife, Marguerite Byrd, lasted from 1948 until 1957. The couple had two children, Adrienne and Shari.
Belafonte didn’t wait to get remarried. He wed dancer Julie Robinson in 1957, and they also had two children together, Gina and David. Belafonte and Robinson divorced in 2004.
In 2008, Belafonte married his third wife, photographer Pamela Frank. The couple lived together in New York City, and Frank had two children prior to their marriage.
On April 25, 2023, Belafonte died at age 96 at his Manhattan home. His spokesperson said the cause of death was congestive heart failure.
- Art. There’s nothing more powerful in the universe than it, because it is the recorder of the truth.
- That song is a way of life. It’s a song about my father, my mother, my uncles, the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica.
Courtesy of: https://www.biography.com/musicians/harry-belafonte