Powerful People: Harry Belafonte To some, the name Harry Belafonte is only known by his famous song “The Banana Boat Song” (Better known as Day-O) but he has accomplished more in his lifetime than most people could ever dream. Belafonte was born in 1927 in New York to a poor family. As a child, he had to make the move between America and Jamaica more than once. From his humble beginnings, Harry Belafonte was able to grow into not only a highly regarded musician and actor, but a powerful activist, taking a stand on several controversial issues through his lifetime.
Belafonte developed a strong name for himself in multiple realms of the entertainment business; however his career as an entertainment had a modest start. In 1944, he dropped out of school and enlisted in the Navy. Upon his return, he began working a series of odd jobs until he eventually took a job as a janitor at the American Negro Theater, a place that would change the course of his entire life. It was there that he first learned of his deep passion for acting. It was also there, as Belafonte says, “that the universe opened” for him (“Harry Belafonte: Out”).
Harry played a role in Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop, which led to the start of his famous music career. But in his heart, the music career took a backseat to his acting. During his career, he helped support up and coming artists like Miriam Makeba and Bob Dylan, Belafonte managed to organize the recording of the multi-artist song ‘We are the World that not only won him a Grammy, but also raised millions of dollars for emergency assistance in Africa. His work in entertainment has won him much regard and praise. Harry’s hit album ‘Calypso’ was the first album ever to go platinum.
His noteworthy work as won several industry awards, including a Tony for his role in Anderson’s Almanac in 1953, and an Emmy for his television special ‘Tonight with Harry Belafonte’ (making him the first African American man to win an Emmy). He was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Carmen Jones in 1954 and became the first African American television producer. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts from for his outstanding contributions in entertainment. He has been applauded as a brilliant musician and a powerful leader for African Americans in the industry.
He faced much prejudice in his career and always demanded to be treated with respect, even if that meant turning down lucrative roles, appearances, and records. “In the early years of my old career, I was branded as being arrogant and I never saw myself as arrogant… white folks just weren’t used to hearing black people speak with a sense of equality” (Binns, Lisa). Harry made significant strides to break down barriers for African American artist. He would only perform with integrated casts and in places he felt had a positive treatment of African Americans (Kile, J).
He is credited for having a large ego, thinking highly of himself and being unafraid to call out other African American artists for not being positive examples. It was these characteristics gained the respect from some, but lost it from others. Despite how others may view him personally, it is irrefutable that he has left a large impression in the entertainment business. One of the m prevalent issues that Belafonte took part in was the support of the American Civil Rights Movement. This issue became evident to him after he returned from the war.
As he said “America was rampant with the murders of black men around this country … we fought for the right to be free and honorable people. Yet, when black soldiers came back from that victory, the celebration was not for us”(Savali, Kirsten). He was discriminated against during his career, being called rude for expecting to be treated with respect from audiences and producers, and being given lesser opportunities solely because of his race. Because of this blatant discrimination, Belafonte became a huge figure in the civil rights movement.
He financially backed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (a committee that played leading role in the civil rights movement by coordinating in sit-ins and freedom rides). Harry was also a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even today, Belafonte participates in events to enforce fundamental individual rights and fair treatment of African Americans. He was at the vanguard of the efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. With all of the work he has done, it is no surprise that he has made some very controversial remarks. One such comment labeled President George W.
Bush as “The greatest terrorist in the world” for launching the war in Iraq, and referring to the Bush’s White House African American staff members as “house slaves” for being a part of the administration. (“Harry Belafonte. “) From all he has done, he has had varying responses from the public. Some honor him for his efforts to bring about equality while others feel his rhetoric has gone too far. Some even label him a communist for his beliefs, to which he responds, “To speak out against an unjust war was treasonous, to speak against the treatment of blacks made you a Communist dupe” (Taylor, Jonathan).
Belafonte is unafraid of taking a stand against racism and has time and is still active today to effect change. Belafonte has done more than take part in the civil rights movement by making it his business to challenge injustice around the world. As a young boy, he grew up in a poor family. He credits his mother for teaching him a lesson that would dictate how he would live his life. After a long fruitless day of looking for work, she told the young Belafonte: “Don’t ever let injustice go by unchallenged”(Zawia, Alexandra).
Belafonte was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1987 where he began to significantly change lives. He helped to abolish school fees in Kenya in 2004, and visited Africa to help work out any remaining issues. He calls upon and challenges other countries to do the same. Not only has he physically gone on location to abolish school fees, but he has dedicated his time by fundraising for worthy causes. He has performed concerts and broadcasts with the purpose of raising money for the UNICEF organization.
Belafonte has been outspoken about the need for proper healthcare in countries that do not provide adequate programs to help their people such as Mozambique and South Africa. (“Goodwill Ambassador”) For his dedication and efforts, Belafonte has been the recipient of the Ronald McDonald House Charities’ 2000 Award of Excellence, the 2006 honoree of American Association of Retired Person’s magazine Impact Award, and the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is highly honored for his achievement to help those in need and well respected for his desire to help others.
Throughout his life, Harry Belafonte has risen above poverty, discrimination and transformed his environment, changing the lives of not only those in entertainment, but also those in need through his humanitarian and activist work. Belafonte has always been a catalyst for change by pushing societal limits to help stride for equality, introducing a new sound to the music world, and by working to better the lives of less fortunate people. In short he has lived a life full of noble efforts and undoubtedly left his mark on the world. He has used his power and influence to serve worthy causes, and to some he could even be called a hero.