Harold George ‘Harry’ Belafonte (1927 - )
The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in
Profile of Harold George ‘Harry’ Belafonte
A singing sensation – dubbed the king of Calypso – a remarkable actor, a humanitarian and a political activist with a knack of speaking his mind on matters of principle, Harold George ‘Harry’ Belafonte Jr was born on 1 March 1927 in Harlem, New York, United States of America.
His parents were Caribbean-born immigrants. He attended George Washington High School after which he joined the navy and served during World War II. After his discharge from the navy, Belafonte resettled in New York City to forge a career as an actor, performing with the American Negro Theatre while studying drama at Erwin Piscator’s famed Dramatic Workshop alongside the likes of Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis.
Multi-talented, he also took an interest in singing. His recording career officially began at the age of 22, in 1949, when he presented himself as a pop singer. In the early 1950s, he discovered both folk music and West Indian music through the Library of Congress's American folk songs archives.
Balafonte also focused on the critical issues of racism, poverty and oppression, not only among the African-American community, but also around the world. Belafonte knew the evils of racism personally and his fame and success in the arts of acting and music did not shield him from racism. He particularly abhorred the naked racial practices in the American South, where he refused to perform. In 1960, President John F Kennedy appointed Belafonte as cultural adviser to the Peace Corps.
Belafonte was one of Martin Luther King's confidants. Like many civil rights activists he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He bailed King out of the Birmingham City jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned civil rights protesters. He financed the freedom rides, supported voter-registration drives and helped to organise a civil rights march in 1963. In 1985, he was one of the organisers behind the Grammy Award-winning song We Are The World, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa, and performed in the Live Aid concert that same year.
In 1987, he received an appointment to the United Nations Children's Fund as a goodwill ambassador. Belafonte duly travelled to Dakar and Senegal, where he served as chairperson of the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children. He also helped to raise funds, alongside more than 20 other artists, in the largest concert ever held in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1994, he went on a mission to Rwanda, and launched a media campaign to raise awareness of the needs of Rwandan children. In 2001, he visited South Africa to support the campaign against HIV and Aids. In 2002, Africare awarded him the Bishop John T Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award for his efforts to assist Africa. In 2004, Belafonte went to Kenya to stress the importance of educating children in the region.
Although he no longer performs live on stage, Belafonte has not given up his dream of seeing a better world for all, free of racism, poverty and exploitation.
Belafonte has been involved in prostate cancer advocacy since 1996, when he was diagnosed and successfully treated for the disease.
Harold George Belafonte’s life has been an embodiment of principle, courage, humanitarianism and dazzling musical and acting talent. His contribution to Calypso and other forms of music, together with his incredible acting abilities are a splendid legacy to humanity. More importantly, he remains a man of unshakeable principles, prepared to forfeit the honours bestowed on him by the establishment, if such honours contradict his quest for good and justice in the world.
Belafonte lives in New York with his wife, Julie. They have two children, Gina and David. Belafonte also has two children from his previous marriage, Shari and Adrienne, and two grandchildren, Rachel and Brian.