Harry Belafonte is a legendary and multitalented artist and activist. He was the first black performer to win an Emmy Award and the first recording artist to sell over a million copies of a single album with Calypso (1956) featuring his hit “Day-O.” Born in Harlem in 1927, Belafonte spent time with his maternal grandmother in Jamaica before returning to Harlem for high school. After a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy, Belafonte returned to New York City where he worked as a janitor’s assistant.
Belafonte first encountered the theater when he was given a ticket to a production at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem for doing repairs in an apartment. Soon after, he joined the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research with classmates like Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis and became thoroughly immersed in the world of theater. Paralleling this pursuit was his interest and love of jazz.
His many firsts in the overturning of numerous racial barriers in American performing arts are legendary. Belafonte met a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on King’s historic visit to New York in the early 1950s. Belafonte and King developed a deep and abiding friendship, and Belafonte played a key role in the civil rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington.
In 1985, disturbed by war, drought, and famine in Africa, Belafonte helped organize the Grammy-winning song “We Are the World,” a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa. Belafonte was active in efforts to end apartheid in South Africa and to release Nelson Mandela.
Belafonte served as the cultural advisor for the Peace Corps, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and was honored as an Ambassador of Conscience by Amnesty International. Recently, Belafonte founded the Sankofa Justice & Equity Fund, a non-profit social justice organization that utilizes the power of culture and celebrity in partnership with activism. It is a space for artists to contribute their talents to build awareness and confront the issues that negatively impact marginalized communities.
In May 2017, the mayor of New York City honored Belafonte by adopting a New York Public Library in his name. It is now called the Harry Belafonte 115th Street Library located in Harlem, a few blocks from where he grew up.
Harry Belafonte received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in November 2014.
Mr. Belafonte has 4 children, 8 grandchildren, and 2 great grandchildren. He lives in New York with his wife, Pamela.
On the anniversary of the March on Washington, YES! reporter Sarah Van Gelder revisits an interview with the musician and civil rights activist about his anthology of Black music. This story from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Spring 2002 issue of YES! Magazine.
In this public conversation at the historic Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture, presented by Red Bull Music and Jill Newman Productions, Harry Belafonte speeks with writer and curator Kimberly Drew about balancing art and activism, legacy and the power of folk art.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sits down with one of his closest friends, artist and activist Harry Belafonte, who remembers how they met and what made King so special, as well as why he says America is more racially divided than any other moment in his life.
Harry Belafonteis a living legend. As a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte played an instrumental role in many of the crucial moments of the civil rights movement. On Oct. 18, he will speak at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven for the 50th anniversary fundraiser of Christian Community Action, a New Haven-based anti-poverty organization.
Harry Belafonte has been an activist for his entire life. He grew up in Harlem surrounded by activist leaders and went on to be a critical part of the Civil Rights Movement.
This article describes his thinking about the continuation of activism and movements in the US and around the world.
Belafonte has not stopped being an activist, even with 90 years under his belt. In fact he recently led a music festival to support his charity Sankofa.org and encourage young artists to speak out about current issues. Belafonte believes that while there is an increasing number of black artists and athletes, they have a duty to speak out about the issues in the black community.
Ultimately, Belafonte will never stop being an activist and galvanizing people to speak about issues that are important to them and their communities.: "The same things needed now are the same things needed before,” he went on. “Movements don’t die because struggle doesn’t die.”
In this interview, Harry Belafonte describes his reaction to the Kaepernick National Anthem Protest - where Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in protest against the treatment of African Americans in the United States.
Belafonte states that he thinks that Kaepernick was not only right in doing it but that it was a "noble and courageous act." He states, "It takes a lot of courage to stand up in the face of that onslaught and not bend to the wind."
The backlash that Kaepernick has received due to his protest is very similar to situations that Belafonte found himself in during the height of his career. Belafonte describes that during his most successful years, "The machinery of oppression was always trying to discredit me" by attempting to portray him as a communist and anti-American.
Belafonte ends the interview by describing his disappointment that other black athletes and celebrities have not joined Kaepernick in his protest and brought to light more African American issues.
In 2013, Harry Belafonte was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP. The Spingarn Medal is awarded annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for outstanding achievement by an African American.
In his acceptance speech, Harry Belafonte call upon all artists to use their art and their positions as celebrities to address many of the unfairness and discrimination leveled at the black community. Belafonte specifically focuses on gun and criminal justice issues.
He points out that "The group most devastated by America’ obsession with the gun is African Americans" and that the majority of the prison population in the United States is African American. When white America talks about Constitutional rights, no one is talking about the "Racial carnage" that is affecting the black America.
Belafonte ends his speech calling on the artist community to make a difference: "Our nation hungers for today’s artists radical songs. Let us not sit back silently. Let us not be charged with patriotic treason...Our children, those who are waiting in the prisons of America are waiting for us to change the system."
In this interview, Harry Belafonte reflects on his life as an activist, singer, and actor, and describes that to him, they are not separate career paths.
Belafonte explains that "What attracted me to the arts was that I saw theater as a social force, a political force."
He goes on to explain his relationships with some of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, his friendship and connection with MLK. He even speaks about King's legacy beyond just the United States.
When asked about his connection to leaders around the world who have not consistently been seen as American allies, he defends his choice by saying that it is important to be open to people from all over the world who have different view points than ours.
In this clip from 1967, American singer and social activist Harry Belafonte talks about racism, patriotism and war. Belafonte was one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s confidants, and a big supporter of the anti-apartheid movement.