Harry Belafonte has been called “the consummate entertainer” – a formidably talented singer, actor, and producer, who has made his mark on the concert stage, the recording industry, in films and on Broadway, and on the television screen, in an extraordinary career which has spanned five decades.
He is also a “consummate humanitarian,” whose activities on behalf of human rights have been felt around this country and around the world. A deep and long-time friend of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was the driving force that united the cultural elements behind the needs of the civil rights movement, including the 1963 Freedom March in Washington, D.C.
Born on March 1, 1927 in Harlem in New York City, his mother, a native of Jamaica, sent him to live in her native land for five years, during his early adolescence, where his exposure to life on the island in all of its variety became a cultural reservoir which he drew upon for his later artistic expression. His mother brought him back to Harlem at the outbreak of World War II, where he found adaptation to this new environment difficult. Unable to finish high school, he enlisted in the U. S. Navy. Following his honorable discharge from the service, he returned to New York, where he worked both in the garment center and as a janitor’s assistant.
Fortuitously, he found the American Negro Theater and studied both there and at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research. At the same time, he became immersed in the world of the jazz musician, spending his nights at the Royal Roost, where he was soon offered the opportunity to perform as the intermission singer at the famed jazz club. His volunteer back-up band on his opening night included some friends of his – Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Tommy Potter, and Al Hage on the piano.
The recognition of his gifts was instantaneous, but his new-found popularity was pulling him away from the world of theater he had come to love. Planning to devote himself full-time to the theater, he disappointingly soon found that this country was not yet willing to embrace its black citizens in his chosen profession. With not enough parts to go around for those many talented actors, including his close friend Sidney Poitier, in frustration, Belafonte opened a small restaurant in Greenwich Village as a means of livelihood. But once again, music beckoned as he discovered The Village Vanguard and the world of folk music, and performers such as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, and Pete Seeger.
This art form would become his ultimate expression, and following diligent study, writing and molding folk songs, he soon opened at The Village Vanguard – and never looked back. A succession of nightclub appearances at The Blue Angel, the Copacabana, and Cafe Society led to Broadway and his first musical, “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” where, astoundingly, in 1953 in his first Broadway role, he won the coveted Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.
Hollywood beckoned at this time, and in his first film he was teamed again with Dorothy Dandridge, first in “Bright Road” and then in Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones” as “Joe.” The overwhelming success of this film placed Belafonte alongside Sidney Poitier as the most sought-after African-American actors in the history of the film industry. Belafonte’s world-wide concert tours have repeatedly sold out since the first one in 1956. He has broken attendance records in most major cities where he has performed and has established a global relationship with audiences lasting over 40 years.
It was the civil rights struggle in the United States, however, that commanded his greatest involvement, with his fervent pursuit for justice leading him to a long and deep commitment to the movement. He was the driving force that united the cultural elements behind the needs of the Civil Rights movement, with the success of his efforts being seen in the overwhelming presence of the arts community in places like the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Freedom March in Washington, D.C.
In the early 1950s, Belafonte met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his historic visit to New York and, from that day until King’s assassination, they developed a deep and abiding friendship. Fearing that American resistance to the goals of the civil rights movement would become economically stressful, Dr. King agreed with Belafonte’s assessment that the movement should reach out to countries outside of the U.S.
In the mid-1980s, disturbed by cruel events unfolding in Africa because of war, drought, and famine, and influenced by the achievements of the “LiveAid” concerts, Belafonte set in motion the wheels that led to “We Are the World.” Through his efforts, the project known as USA for Africa also came into being. An outgrowth of this then became “Hands Across America,” a benefit for hungry Americans, a cause with which he was also deeply involved.
During his UNICEF tenure, he created an historic symposium in Dakar, Senegal for the immunization of African children, which then led to a successful campaign for the eradication of curable diseases among those children, as well as a subsequent symposium, “Children of the Front Line,” which took place in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1988, focusing global attention on child survival and development in Southern African countries, especially those victimized by apartheid. As part of this effort, with the largest concentration of African artists ever assembled, he performed in a concert to benefit UNICEF, that also resulted on a one-hour video presentation – “Paradise in Gazankulu.”