The activist who became an artist

Belafonte learned a lot from Robeson during his formative years, and by the time he began to consider himself an artist, he had activism at the core of his heart. Belafonte claimed that his appreciation of the arts was sparked by his perception of “theatre as a social force, as a political force.”

The activist who became an artist

Harry Belafonte [Photo:SNS]

As the world sadly bids adieu to Harry Belafonte “on his way” forever, it’s an opportunity to revisit his legacy, which is interwoven with the Civil Rights Movement. Before Elvis’ breakthrough, the “Calypso King,” as Belafonte is known, was truly the biggest sensation. He would also undoubtedly be remembered for his rollicking calypsos, upbeat work songs, and tender ballads. By breaching the barrier and releasing hit singles, he practically single-handedly ignited a craze for Caribbean music.

His 1956 album “Calypso” was the first to sell more than a million copies. Belafonte, an EGOT (an abbreviation for celebrities who have won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards), was the first Black leading actor to have significant success in Hollywood. Ingeniously fusing politics and entertainment on his TV programme “Tonight With Belafonte,” he earned an Emmy in 1960. However, is that the Harry Belafonte we are lamenting?

Certainly not. He may be much beyond that. Belafonte is not only one of America’s greatest entertainers but also one of its most profoundly influential activists. He could decline a movie offer – the 1959 screen adaptation of “Porgy and Bess,” an Otto Preminger film – on the grounds that it contained what he deemed to be negative racial stereotypes.


As Belafonte himself acknowledged, “My activism really started the day of my birth, born from immigrant parents.” His ascent to the upper echelons of American showbiz in the 1950s, when segregation was still pervasive, was historic and fairy tale-like too. Paul Robeson, the legendary baritone who was derided as crazy and un-American for his political activism and whose career was derailed by McCarthyism, served as Belafonte’s role model.

Belafonte learned a lot from Robeson during his formative years, and by the time he began to consider himself an artist, he had activism at the core of his heart. Belafonte claimed that his appreciation of the arts was sparked by his perception of “theatre as a social force, as a political force.” In fact, in 2018, Belafonte told CBS News’ Vladimir Duthiers: “He [Robeson] said, artists are the gatekeepers of truth.

He said only through the world of the arts do we know who and what we are in the history of civilization.” Robeson might have given Belafonte the necessary backbone for his activism, but it was Martin Luther King Jr. who nourished his soul. At least, this was how Belafonte perceived it. Dr. King called Belafonte in 1954 and asked for his assistance on the mission to “move this monster along the highway of life.” At the time, King was 24 and Belafonte was 26. Belafonte was blown away by King’s courage and conviction.

He embraced Dr. King’s message of nonviolence and supported his protest movements. “His moral sense was quite keen, and it drove his politics,” Belafonte recalled. A historic lifetime friendship began. In order for Dr. King to realize his “Dream,” the quest for racial equality he personified, Belafonte became an ardent advocate. Belafonte, one of the key fundraisers for Dr. King’s mission, also provided money to bail Dr. King out of Birmingham City Jail as well as other civil rights fighters.

Belafonte appeared on the National Mall for the March on Washington on 28 August 1963, just before King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King made Belafonte’s Manhattan apartment his temporary residence. And after King’s assassination in 1968, he helped the King family financially.

The 2011 documentary “Sing Your Song” recounts the life and legacy of Harry Belafonte, where Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. King, remarked: “Harry motivated Martin because he was a man who didn’t have to get involved, and who did.” He oddly overcame the racial and cultural gap between a Southern Baptist preacher and a blue-blooded northern Irish Catholic to serve as the link between King and John F. Kennedy.

Belafonte funded the Freedom Rides. He was also the “Daddy Warbucks” to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) throughout the Movement; he provided significant financial support to them. “My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance,” Harry Belafonte’s 2012 autobiography, begins with a 1964 incident when Belafonte is trying to persuade his long-time friend, actor Sidney Poitier to assist him in personally delivering $70,000 in cash to the SNCC in Greenwood, Mississippi.

The funds were used to aid the SNCC in many ways, although they were most frequently used for bail and legal assistance. And Harry Belfonte was there during the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is inextricably linked to Belafonte’s legacy.

Afterwards, Belafonte naturally cannonballed into every social justice movement, whether it was the fight against apartheid, for women’s rights, for children’s rights, for LGBTQ+ equality, or for tackling climate change. In 1985, Belafonte took the initiative for “We Are the World,” a multi-starrer American benefit single for African famine relief.

And even after Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2013, then-86-year-old Belafonte made an unexpected appearance at a student sit-in outside the office of the Florida governor. Belafonte appeared in a commercial supporting John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Later, he would label George W. Bush a terrorist for invading Iraq. During the 2016 US presidential election campaign, while soliciting the black vote, Donald Trump asked, “What do you have to lose?” In reply, on election day, Belafonte wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “What Do We Have to Lose? Everything.”

He developed friendships with international leaders who were considered hostile to the US, such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, and also collaborated with Nelson Mandela during his initial years in prison. The hardness of Harlem, New York, where Belafonte was born, as well as the resilience of his parents’ native Jamaica, where he spent his early years, the Great Depression period, and the era of segregation, may have served as the foundation for his traits and activities throughout his life.

His art frequently evolved into an authentic reflection of his life. For instance, he cherished going to the banana markets when in Jamaica. Many years later, after becoming famous around the world with “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” he noted: “Not by chance did that song become my signature.

I knew of what I was singing.” If it weren’t for his activism, he might have been another great artist rather than the beloved Harry Belafonte we know today. In the title of his memoir, the word “defiance” is of utmost significance, I believe.

This “defiance,” together with his resilience, has undoubtedly enhanced his artistic persona. “I was an activist who became an artist,” Belafonte told PBS’ Gwen Ifill in 2011. Also, in 2018, Belafonte said to Duthiers, “I saw the song as having something far more than something to delight audiences and people could dance and sing. It had content, and I began to see this content of black protest music.”

Harry Belafonte was committed, intelligent, and honest to the very end. And it’s astonishing how eloquently the girl in “Kingston Town” transforms into a girl in “Capetown” or “Laketown.” That extraordinary impact – magical splash – was made possible not only by his music but rather by his activism, which is characterized by his “defiance.” His music could only accentuate that.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.)