Harry Belafonte

He is one of the most successful Jamaican musicians in history, he was dubbed the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean musical style in the 1950s. Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing the "Banana Boat Song", with its signature lyric "Day-O". Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes. In recent years he has been a vocal critic of the policies of the Bush Administration.

  • Date of Birth: March 1, 1929 in Harlem, New York
    Birth Name: Harold George Belafonete Jr.
  • Education: Dropped out from George Washington High School in age of 17 and afterward joined the Navy and served during World War II. In the late 1940s, Belafonte took the acting classes along with Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Beatrice Arthur, and Sidney Poitier.
  • Profession: Musician, Actor, Director, Producer, Anti-racialist, and Humanitarian
  • Biography: 
    Harold George Belafonte’s parents were from the Caribbean. His father, Harold George Belafonte, Sr., was from Martinique and was a cook in the British Navy. His mother, Malvine Belafonte, was from Jamaica. She worked as a housekeeper and dressmaker. When Belafonte was eight years old, his mother sent his brother Dennis and him to boarding school in Jamaica. He stayed there until high school, when the family moved back to New York City.

    Belafonte attended George Washington High School where he was on the track team. He dropped out of school at age seventeen and joined the United States Navy. In 1945, after the service, he returned to New York City and was a maintenance worker. As a tip, someone gave him tickets to a play. Belafonte was fascinated by the theater. He began volunteering as a stagehand with the American Negro Theater (ANT), and decided he wanted to be an actor. Belafonte studied acting and performed with the ANT. He landed a singing role in a play, and his audience discovered his great singing voice too. Soon he was singing jazz and pop songs in nightclubs professionally, but he did not really like it. At about the same time, he began to find meaning in folk music. On weekends he’d go to Washington, D.C., where he studied African American folk music from the collections at the Library of Congress.

    Belafonte also studied music from the Caribbean. Singing at New York’s Village Vanguard led to his album Calypso(1956), the first album of its kind ever to sell over a million copies. It started a calypso music craze in the United States. Belafonte made a number of other successful recordings, as his acting career began to take off. His first major film role was in Bright Road (1953), in which he appeared alongside Dorothy Dandridge. In 1954, he got a role in the movie Carmen Jones (1954), where the entire cast was African American. Belafonte also produced movies and shows. He became the first African American television producer and won an Emmy Award for his first solo TV special Tonight with Belafonte (1959).

    He wanted his work to promote both racial equality and racial harmony. He won a Tony Award in 1954 for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac (1953). Belafonte’s films acting credits include: Island in the Sun (1957), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), and Kansas City (1996). When Belafonte began his career, life was hard for black entertainers. Blacks worked in the theaters and hotels. But segregation meant blacks could not stay in the same hotels as other whites, or eat in the restaurants in those hotels, or even socialize with their friends in those hotels. Belafonte was once denied an apartment in New York City because he was black. So he bought the whole building. Racist conditions incited Belafonte to play a continuous role in getting racial barriers removed.

    In the 1960s, he was involved in the civil rights movement and he has helped many people all over the world. In 1985, he produced and sang a Grammy-winning song called "We Are the World." Proceeds from the song benefited the starving people in Ethiopia. Two years later, he became the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. In 1988, the Peace Corps gave him its Leader for Peace Award. Twenty percent of his income goes to the Belafonte Foundation of Music and Art, which helps young black people study for careers in the arts. He also heads a group called the Urban Peace Movement.

    Belafonte produced a five-CD set called “The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music”. It features African American music and music from Africa dating as early as the 1600s. He received the National Medal of the Arts in 1994 and the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2000. Currently Belafonte is still entertaining, and working for good quality causes. On October 8, 2002, Belafonte made news after publicly criticizing Secretary of State Colin Powell. He compared Powell’s position in the George W. Bush administration to a slave out to please his master.















©2006 English Department at NCU. All Rights Reserved.