Belafonte’s storied rise to stardom is almost unbelievable at times – seemingly a narrative straight out of classic Hollywood. After returning from World War II as a member of the Navy, Belafonte became enamored with the thriving New York City theater scene. He signed up for acting classes and was able to learn alongside groundling actors such as Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and Sidney Poitier. He paid his way through acting school by booking gigs as a club singer throughout the city. Never short on luck, Belafonte’s first club performance in front of an audience was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included jazz legends Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
Amazingly, Belafonte was able to continue following his passions for both music and acting even after finding success as a recording artist. He appeared in six films throughout the 1950s. In 1956, however, his music would prove to be his ticket to stardom. With the release of Calypso, which features the song that brought him to iconic status, the “Banana Boat Song,” Belafonte became the first recording artist to ever sell more than one million copies of an LP. By the turn of the 1960s, Belafonte was revered throughout America as the “King of Calypso.”
Despite his popularity brought on by the infectious novelty of his blend of Calypso and Caribbean music, Belafonte was determined to prove his talents in nearly every other popular genre of the day, including Blues, Folk, and Gospel. He has released over thirty albums in a career spanning across seven consecutive decades. His music has been featured in numerous films, perhaps most famously in the classic dinner party scene of 1988’s Beetlejuice.
Belafonte’s remarkable life could not be contained solely in the world of entertainment. He became highly involved with the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, becoming one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s biggest financial supporters as well as a close friend. Belafonte’s interests in social progress and equality earned him the title of Cultural Advisor to the Peace Corps, a role bestowed upon him by President John F. Kennedy. In 1985, he performed at the first ever Live Aid to provide relief for victims of famine in Ethiopia. That same year, he helped organize the We Are The World benefit collaboration song with artists like Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and Lionel Richie. In 1987, Belafonte was elected as Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF. These achievements are but a few of the ways that Harry Belafonte strived to use his talents and fame to push for positive change.
At the age of 84, Belafonte continues to voice his opinions on issues of the day in appearances on television and at political events. In 2011, a documentary entitled “Sing Your Song,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, spotlighting Belafonte’s dedication to the progression of civil rights from the 1960s through present day. He has made it clear that he will not rest until his dream of a just and equal America, a safe and prosperous Africa, and a world united in music becomes a reality.