Harry Belafonte, born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. on March 1, 1927, had a diverse and rich cultural background that can be traced back to his parents, Harold George Bellanfanti Sr. and Melvine Love. Both Harry Belafonte parents were Jamaican-born, contributing to Belafonte’s Jamaican heritage. Harold Sr., who worked as a chef, was the son of a Black American mother and a Dutch-Jewish father, while Melvine, a housekeeper, had a mixture of Dutch-Jewish, Sephardic Jewish, and Afro-Caribbean ancestry.
Born at the Lying-in Hospital in Harlem, New York, Harry Belafonte grew up amidst the vibrant cultural and sociopolitical environment of 20th-century America. The unique blend of his parents’ backgrounds played an essential role in shaping Belafonte’s multifaceted career as a singer, actor, and activist. Their Jamaican heritage, in particular, influenced his affinity for popularizing Caribbean folk songs known as calypsos, eventually earning him international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s.
Belafonte’s upbringing and the values instilled in him by his parents led to his dedication to numerous social causes and activism throughout his life. As a key figure in the folk music scene of the 1950s, Belafonte championed civil rights, humanitarian efforts, and used his platform to raise awareness on various issues. Harry Belafonte parents’ rich cultural legacy and experiences as immigrants in the United States significantly contributed to shaping the remarkable life and career of Harry Belafonte.
Birth and Parentage
Harry Belafonte was born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York, as Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. He is the son of Jamaican-born parents, Harold George Bellanfanti Sr., a chef, and Melvine Love, a housekeeper.
Childhood in Jamaica
Following his birth in New York, Harry Belafonte spent the majority of his childhood in Jamaica. He lived with his mother, who had returned to her home country. During this time, he was exposed to various cultural influences that would later shape his artistic career.
Back to New York and Early Education
At the onset of World War II, Belafonte returned to Harlem along with his mother and brother. He pursued his early education in New York City, and eventually found himself working at the American Negro Theater in Kansas City. This experience would contribute significantly to his career as a singer, actor, and social activist.
Transition to Entertainment
Beginnings in Music
Harry Belafonte started his journey in the entertainment industry as an American singer. He was introduced to the world of music through his work as a jazz club singer in New York City. He gained immense popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly for popularizing the Caribbean folk songs known as calypsos. His career breakthrough album, Calypso (1956), featured the iconic “The Banana Boat Song” (also known as “Day-O”), which not only became a major hit but also made Belafonte the first Black artist to have a million-selling LP.
With his success in music, Belafonte’s career took a new direction when he ventured into Broadway. In 1953, he made his debut in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac and showcased his acting prowess. His performance garnered significant attention, ultimately leading to his winning a Tony Award. This achievement further solidified Belafonte’s reputation as a versatile entertainer.
As Belafonte continued to find success in the world of music and theater, his talent soon caught the eye of the film industry. In 1954, he made his film debut in Carmen Jones, where he played the role of Joe, a young soldier who becomes romantically involved with the title character. His performance in Carmen Jones opened new opportunities for Belafonte in cinema.
Harry then appeared in Bright Road (1953), Island in the Sun (1957), and finally transitioned to the role of producer and star in Buck and the Preacher (1972). His work on both sides of the camera led to the creation of his television concert special, An Evening with Belafonte, which further showcased his wide range of talents.
Belafonte’s transition from music to stage and screen demonstrated his diverse abilities in the world of entertainment. He maintained a successful career, all while staying true to his passions and bringing awareness to social causes throughout his life.
Music Career Peak
Popularity of Calypso
During the peak of Harry Belafonte’s music career, he played an important role in popularizing Caribbean folk music, especially Calypso. Belafonte was a key figure in the folk music scene of the 1950s, and his work brought attention to different musical genres, including Calypso. One of his most famous songs, “The Banana Boat Song,” showcased the infectious rhythms and melodies of Calypso music, which would lead to greater recognition of the genre.
Although Belafonte gained fame from his Calypso music, he did not limit himself to this single genre. As a versatile artist, Harry explored other music styles such as Folk and Blues. This diversification allowed him to appeal to a wider audience and showcase his talent across multiple musical traditions. Belafonte’s work on stage and screen also highlighted his versatility. Notably, he appeared in the play “3 for Tonight,” which further demonstrated his passion for performing.
Over the course of his career, Harry Belafonte released numerous successful albums, showcasing his mastery of various musical genres. Some of his most notable albums include:
- Calypso (1956): This album features the famous “Banana Boat Song” and brought Calypso music into the mainstream
- Jump in the Line (1961): Another popular album highlighting Belafonte’s talent for Calypso, the title track became a well-recognized staple in his repertoire
- Odds Against Tomorrow (1959): Branching out from his Calypso roots, this Blues-influenced album demonstrates Harry’s capability to explore and excel in different musical genres
Through these albums and many more, activist Harry Belafonte solidified his place as an accomplished, multi-talented musician whose impact on the music industry is still felt today.
Other Artistic Pursuits
Film and Television Careers
In addition to his musical accomplishments, Harry Belafonte has had a successful career in film and television. He has worked with acclaimed actors such as Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando, pushing the boundaries for black actors in Hollywood. A notable film appearance came when he starred opposite Sidney Poitier in the 1974 comedy “Uptown Saturday Night”.
Belafonte’s film career continued to thrive over the years, with an unforgettable performance in the 2018 film, “BlacKkKlansman”, directed by Spike Lee. In television, he made history as the first African-American man to win an Emmy Award in 1959 for his work on “Tonight with Belafonte”. He also left a mark as a guest host on “The Tonight Show”, helping break barriers for black entertainers on television during that time.
Harry Belafonte’s artistic pursuits also extended to photography, showcasing his keen eye for capturing moments. His photographs provide a glimpse into the life and experiences of an important figure in both the entertainment world and the civil rights movement. Through his lens, Belafonte effectively documented an era in American history, leaving a visual legacy alongside his musical and acting accomplishments.
In summary, Harry Belafonte’s other artistic pursuits include a successful career in film and television, working with prominent actors such as Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando, as well as developing his skills as a photographer. His broad range of talents and passions speak to his impact on the arts and culture, leaving a lasting legacy for future generations to appreciate and learn from.
Civil Rights Activism
Association with Martin Luther King Jr
Harry Belafonte was a prominent American singer, actor, and civil rights activist, who played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement. His activism was shaped by his experiences of racial subjugation in Harlem and Jamaica. Belafonte was a close friend and supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He used his influence in the entertainment industry to raise funds for the movement and participated in numerous protests and campaigns.
As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Belafonte extended his civil rights activism beyond the United States. He advocated for the rights of marginalized communities and provided aid to those affected by disasters across the globe. Through his work with UNICEF, Belafonte raised awareness about the importance of education, healthcare, and social justice for all people, regardless of their race or nationality.
Legacy and Accolades
Lifetime Achievement and Other Awards
Harry Belafonte’s contributions to the entertainment industry and humanitarian causes have earned him numerous prestigious awards throughout his career. Some of these accolades include the Grammy Awards and the Kennedy Center Honors. His dedication to social activism led to him receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
One notable recognition of his lifetime achievements is the Lifetime Achievement Award, bestowed upon him by the prestigious Grammy Awards, highlighting his impact in the music industry. Additionally, he has also been bestowed the National Medal of Arts in honor of his incredible artistic contributions.
Harry Belafonte’s legacy continues to be celebrated, not only for his work as a musician, but also for his significant involvement in social activism and humanitarianism. Many institutions have honored him with their highest recognitions, such as the Kennedy Center Honors and the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These distinctions serve to emphasize the lasting impact of Belafonte’s work and life on the entertainment industry, social issues, and future generations of artists and activists.
Personal Life and Later Years
Harry Belafonte married Julie Robinson in 1957, and together they had two children: Adrienne and David. The couple eventually parted ways, after which, in 2008, Belafonte married Pamela Frank. Throughout his life, Belafonte was dedicated to his family, spending quality time with them, despite his busy work schedule and activism.
Health and Final Years
In his later years, Belafonte faced some health challenges, including a battle with congestive heart failure. He eventually relocated to Manhattan, New York City, where he spent his remaining years with his family close by. His presence in the entertainment industry still continued as he maintained a connection with his fans and his activist efforts.
Harry Belafonte’s parents, Harold George Belafonte and Melvine Bellanfanti, played a significant role in shaping the artist he became. Their diverse background, which included African American, Jamaican, Scottish, Afro-Jamaican, Dutch-Jewish, and Sephardic Jewish heritage, allowed Belafonte to embrace various cultural influences, resulting in a unique and identifiable style.
Mr Belafonte’s rise to fame began in the 1950s when he popularized calypso music and became a key figure in the American folk music scene. With his ambitious spirit and exceptional talent, Belafonte made remarkable contributions to the entertainment industry while simultaneously using his platform to champion for important social causes, such as civil rights movements.
In addition to his musical career, Belafonte also flourished as an actor and activist, further solidifying his legacy as a meaningful figure in American culture. It is important to acknowledge the distinct background and upbringing that Harry Belafonte received from his parents, which ultimately influenced and shaped his remarkable career.