Harry Belafonte (1927-2023)

The singer, actor, and activist has died at the age of 96. All his life, he was an untiring fighter for civil rights and social justice and an opponent of US imperialism, as you can see from this brief biography.

As well as performing global hits such as Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), winning a Tony award for acting and appearing in numerous feature films, Belafonte spent his life fighting for a variety of causes. He bankrolled numerous 1960s initiatives to bring civil rights to Black Americans; campaigned against poverty, apartheid and Aids in Africa; and supported leftwing political figures such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Belafonte maintained an acting career alongside music, winning a Tony award in 1954 for his appearance in the musical revue show, John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, and appearing in several films, most notably as one of the leads in Island in the Sun, along with James Mason, Joan Fontaine and Joan Collins, with whom he had an affair. He was twice paired with Dorothy Dandridge, in Carmen Jones and Bright Road, but he turned down a third film, an adaptation of Porgy and Bess, which he found “racially demeaning”.

He later said the decision “helped fuel the rebel spirit” that was brewing in him, a spirit he parlayed into a lifetime of activism, using his newfound wealth to fund various initiatives. He was mentored by Martin Luther King Jr and Paul Robeson, and bailed King out of a Birmingham, Alabama, jail in 1963 as well as co-organising the march on Washington that culminated in King’s “I have a dream” speech. He also funded the Freedom Riders and SNCC, activists fighting unlawful segregation in the American south, and worked on voter registration drives.

He was a fierce proponent of leftwing politics, criticising hawkish US foreign policy, campaigning against nuclear armament, and meeting with both Castro and Chavez. At the meeting with Chavez, in 2006, he described US president George W Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world”. He also characterised Bush’s Black secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as being like slaves who worked in their master’s house rather than in the fields, criticisms that Powell and Rice rejected.

He was a frequent critic of Democrats, particularly Barack Obama, over issues including Guantanamo Bay detentions and the fight against rightwing extremism.

In 2006 he was invited by my university to gave a talk. The largest auditorium in the university was packed, showing that even though his performing days were mostly over, he still had the power to draw crowds. I described his talk in a blog post. He was wry and self-deprecating. Many, many decades ago my parents attended a concert by him in London and were blown away by his singing, stage presence, and by the many colorful shirts he wore during the show.

My favorite song by him is Island in the Sun, perhaps because although it ostensibly refers to Jamaica from where his parents emigrated and where he spent eight years of his childhood, the words are also evocative of Sri Lanka. Here he is performing it.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I remember him best from his role in the post-apocalyptic 1959 film The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    I saw him on June 11th, 1988 at Wembley Stadium. He gave the opening speech at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert, and introduced the first act, Sting.

    The crowd had been allowed into the stadium early and had already seen Sting soundchecking and playing a song before the official start of the gig (as he left the stage he told us “when I come back on, look surprised”). I vividly remember them being audibly impatient with this old guy who was not Sting banging on about something or other. In turn, Belafonte was visibly annoyed with the crowd reaction. I was today years old when I found out he was also annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to sing, having been told by the organisers that he’d be a turnoff for the television audience. I suspect the crowd reaction on the day must have been galling proof the organisers had been right.

  3. brightmoon says

    “ Hey mister tally man, tally me banana” Harry you tallied up a good life RIP

  4. flex says

    About 20 years ago I got interested in digitizing a lot of my older vinyl.

    The first record I used was an old 45 of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O”. This was an original press of the 45 but in rather poor condition. I think I found it in a garage sale in the 1970’s. If I could remove the noise and pops from this old 45, I knew the audio restoration software package I was using could probably restore any of the vinyl which was stored more carefully.

    I sampled the disk at a pretty high sampling rate, and sampled the noise from the dead zones on the record. I played with the audio file for a number of hours, removing the hiss, squashing pops, etc., but never got some of the signal from the very beginning of the track to go away. So I decided to take a close listen to it.

    There was a 15 second drum solo at the start of the track. I’d never heard it before because it was so faint that the hiss of the needle on the record player drowned it out. And I had a pretty decent turntable. But there it was. A beautiful little aperitif before the song started.

    I know this story has nothing to do with Belafonte’s activism or passions. But I’ve always loved that hidden away, at the start of his possibly most recognizable song, was something that I never heard. I’m not saying that other people haven’t heard this delightful little drum solo, but I don’t think I ever heard it on any radio and I know I never heard it from this disk.

  5. garnetstar says

    Day-O (he also recorded a companion song, Star-O) and Jamaica Farewll will live forever. Jamaica Farewell makes me weep, to this day.

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