Photo by William Campbell/Sygma via Getty Images
Apr 28, 2023
We mourn the loss of legendary musician, dauntless activist and "lionhearted civil rights icon" Harry Belafonte, who for seven decades used his celestial voice and righteous rage to "lift people up," wielding his fame, fortune and connections to fund bedrock civil rights efforts from SNCC and the Freedom Riders to babysitters for MLK's kids. Giving us "a piece of his fire," he kept doggedly at it so he could tell his children, "In my lifetime, I did all that I could."
Born in Harlem in 1927 to West Indian immigrants, with a Dutch Jewish paternal grandfather, Belafonte was a cross-cultural visionary equally beloved by black and white audiences, an "agent of change" who became what scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. called "the musical voice of civil rights." Having come of age splitting his childhood between Jim Crow America and a segregated Jamaica still under British rule, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II only to return to the racist inequities and indignities of both places. When he turned to music, he quickly rose to stardom with the 1956 album “Calypso,” featuring enduring hits like "Day-O" and "Jamaica Farewell." It sold over a million copies - which briefly rivaled Elvis Presley on the charts - and became, for those of us growing up then, the soundtrack of our young lives. But from the beginning, his music - with its "astonishing" range" - was also consistently, often clandestinely political, melding the buoyant, intricate rhythms of Calypso with stories of hard times. "Almost all Black music is deeply rooted in metaphor," he once said. "The only way we could speak to the pain and the anguish of our experiences was often (by codifying) our stories in the songs we sang." For all its jauntiness, he noted much later, "Dayo is a work song. It's about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid... When people sing in delight and dance and love it, they don't really understand it's a song of rebellion."
The same spirit of struggle imbues "Jamaica Farewell," his mournful lament by migrant workers. His slavery-themed "Cotton Fields,” chilling “Swing Dat Hammer” chain gang songs with Odetta, Jewish “Hava Nagila” anthem of freedom, traditional African songs recorded alongside anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba - they're all about loss, grief, hardship, resilience. The title song of his bluesy 1962 “The Midnight Special” was popularized by Leadbelly in the '30s after his release from a Texas prison; it's about a real-life train inmates could hear going past that symbolized their hope for freedom. Belafonte's version also boasts an historic debut: When he couldn't get Sonny Terry, he was told about a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan who "does that whole Sonny thing...he sleeps and dreams it." When he reluctantly sent for him, "this skinny kid" appeared with a paper sack full of harmonicas from Woolworth's: "I played the song for him, he pulled one out of the bag, dipped it in water and played it through a single take, and it was great." Dylan didn't want to do another take and threw the harp into the trash can on his way out; they were so cheap and he was so good, he'd play them once and "they were finished." Decades later, Dylan wrote in a memoir, "Harry had ideals and made you feel you're part of the human race...He never took the easy path, though he could have."
Others' praise echoes him. Coretta Scott King: "Harry motivated Martin, because here’s a man who didn’t have to get involved and who did." Miriam Makeba: "He took all our struggles and made them his own." Julian Bond: "Harry did this over and over and over again." Vulture's Craig Jenkins: "He took the prickly, insistent path... He brought people together while making anyone who was too at ease in the old ways of thinking a little uncomfortable." Attuned to the sorrows of the world, Belafonte often tailored songs to a struggle of the moment; a favorite was "Don't Stop the Carnival," a defiant Trinidadian demand that the carnival go on despite longtime state repression. In his electrifying Global Carnival before exultant crowds in Zimbabwe in 1988, the song became a pan-African anthem of solidarity - "You cannot hold back the tide" - with references to Biko, Tutu, Palestine, Mandela. Performing it 20 years earlier in the U.S. on CBS’s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the song became a bitter critique of the just-ended "American bacchanal" that was the violent assault on anti-war protesters at Chicago's Democratic National Convention. As he sang, video of it played behind him: "Tell the whole population/We're having a confrontation/Let it be known/Freedom's gone and the country is not our own/Lord, don't stop the carnival! Carnival's an American bacchanal!"
His fierce devotion to social justice also played out in carefully chosen theater, movie and television roles where he stubbornly refused to just shut up and sing/act. He became the first Black man to win a Tony after composing and starring in his 1954 Broadway debut John Murray Anderson's Almanac; that year he also dazzled in Otto Preminger's all-black Carmen Jones opposite Dorothy Dandridge. But he turned down the director's film adaptation of Porgy and Bess because he felt its themes of sex, addiction and violence perpetuated negative Black stereotypes. On the flip side, as a prominent Black man he refused parts that seemed to him "neutered" of sex and rage, which for him "marked an interior life." He turned down two roles - Lilies of the Field (1963) and To Sir, With Love (1967) - that made a star of his friend Sidney Poitier; as broke young men in New York, the pair used to split the cost of single tickets to Broadway shows so each could watch one act. "To Hollywood, Sidney was the one black actor with whom white America felt comfortable," he wrote, citing Poitier's "sexless gallantry.” “It really burned me that in the midst of the civil rights movement, with Jim Crow laws falling away, the only black who sold movie tickets was one who posed no threat whatsoever to the masculinity of white moviegoers.”
On TV, he became the first Black actor to win an Emmy for the 1959 special “Tonight with Belafonte,” after which he signed a million-dollar deal for a series. That first episode had black and white performers singing and dancing; when producers demanded that, going forward, he had to choose either a black or white cast to avoid race-mixing, he walked out on the deal - “I cannot be re-segregated" - though decades later he admitted he'd still made $800,000, much of which went to civil rights efforts. Both he and Petula Clark also refused to do another take of a song after she touched his arm; such were the times. Belafonte called himself “an activist who became an artist, not an artist who became an activist"; he rejected the notion of movies and TV as "all-powerful arbiters of the culture.” “They just reflected the culture," he wrote in a 2011 autobiography. "Doing battle with them was like fighting a mirror. To change the culture, you had to change the country. And only one thing would change the country: the movement.” In this, he chose two American giants as moral mentors. Paul Robeson, the great baritone, Socialist and blacklisted civil rights activist, gave him his "backbone," he said, and his dear friend Martin Luther King Jr. "nourished" his soul. "As long as the compass was pointed at him, he did not shy away from taking on the challenge,” he said of King. “And our task was to help him succeed."
Following his fervent belief in "whatever you’re capable of doing as artists to help propagandize the civil rights revolution," he used his fame and fortune to nudge Hollywood peers into activism and work "fundraising miracles" for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its kindred efforts. As a liaison with the bourgeoning civil rights movement, he used friendships with A-listers like Frank Sinatra, Rita Moreno, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando to raise over $100,000 to fund the 1964 Freedom Rides, to attend 1963's March on Washington - he spoke alongside King - to walk, arms locked, for the third time across Edmund Pettus Bridge. His money "went for bonds and bail...for guys to get in their car and go wherever,” he later said. "I was Daddy Warbucks." During 1964's Freedom Summer, he and Poitier narrowly escaped a Ku Klux Klan ambush after they flew to Mississippi to deliver $70,000 to the newly birthed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Poitier later joked, “Don’t ever call me again." Belafonte loved King as a brother and long supported his family despite later differences; in one haunting photo at King's funeral, he sits anguished and red-eyed beside a stony Coretta Scott King. Much later he wrote a pained song for him - "Armed with love/ he marched us all to war/ The song I sing/ I sing for you sweet Martin Luther King - but rarely performed it.
For one unprecedented week in February 1968, at the height of the Tet offensive and riots in U.S. cities - and just months before King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated - Belafonte took over The Tonight Show to "introduce white America to his world of art and activism...It was like seeing a luminous parallel America where everything seemed possible, even if it wasn't in the end." The first Black host of a late-night show, he welcomed gifted, often Black friends: Lena Horne, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dionne Warwick, the Smothers Brothers. Paul Newman played trombone. Poet Marianne Moore spoke. Zero Mostel stood on a couch to greet Wilt Chamberlain. Sadly, what survives are only his gentle, probing interviews with a relaxed King and Kennedy, weary, thoughtful, despairing about our unholy disparities. He spoke searingly of poverty, rats, lousy housing, hungry children, our "untruths about ourselves (and) treating everyone equally...The fact is we're not caring for them. We're not." Due in part, Belafonte persistently adds, to the war, "this beleaguered child of several administrations." The show, with its palpable sense of loss, is documented in a 2020 film "The Sit-In." Belafonte ended with grace and clarity, recognizing those "offended by the politics aired" but explaining he sought to "give you all a taste of what’s being said in rooms many of you may not know or enter. Thank you for listening.” Whoopi Goldberg: "He was saying, 'We're Americans, we're part of this, we're not going anywhere. Y'all brought us, and we're here.'"
Over time, the silky, multi-platinum voice deepened into a stately, still-rich rasp. He remained knockdown handsome, eloquent and insightful, fiercely devoted to the cause. Tireless, he performed with his terrific musicians and back-up singers around the world - Italy, Angola, Germany, Mozambique - strutting, dancing, drumming, barely breaking a sweat. Watching hours of his performances, we never saw him stop for a break or sip of water, but in an enduring spirit of collectivity he always playfully urged his audiences to sing along with old favorites, which they did, happily. Into his 80s and 90s, he also abided as "an immovable presence on the protest front lines" because, he explained decades ago, “I would hate for my children to look at me and say, ‘Where were you during the moment of the great decision?’” "Movements don't die," he liked to say, "because struggle doesn't die." His perspective was global: Along with his fiery opposition to the Vietnam War, he stood against the U.S. embargo against Cuba, America's wars in the Middle East, South Africa's apartheid system and the 27-year imprisonment of Nelson Mandela; after Mandela's unconditional, bittersweet release in 1990, Belafonte hosted his triumphant visit to the U.S. During the Iraq War, Belafonte called George Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world"; referencing Malcolm X, he also called Colin Powell, who dutifully served Bush, "a house slave."
In the last couple of decades, he worried, "What has happened to the young? What was all of that for - my friends who were murdered?" He went to find out, learning, "There is always something in motion." He turned out for Occupy and BLM events, marched in Pride Parades, sat in with Dream Defenders, joined protests against police murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray et al. He campaigned for Bernie Sanders and served as a co-chair for the Women’s March on D.C., insisting, "I'm just the plumber - I come in to fix the pipes." At 91, he made a cameo appearance in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman with a harrowing speech about America's racism; Lee was awed by "the courage, the weight, the levity... Mr. B is a walking, talking human piece of history." His rare performances were only for a good cause. In 1985, he got the idea for "We Are the World," a charity single by USA for Africa's 46 musical superstars to raise money for a famine in Ethiopia; in days it sold 800,000 copies - ultimately over 20 million - and raised $63 million in famine relief. To lift spirits during a 12-hour session, Al Jarreau broke into an impromptu "Day-O"; in lovely video, we see and hear others quickly, delightedly join in: "Daylight come and we wanna go home." Pointedly stationed in the back, Belafonte at first looks sheepish. But as the voices rise he begins to smile broadly and then sing along, "content to be part of a higher cause without being the shiniest star in the room."
When Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets and Sesame Street, died unexpectedly in 1990, a moving yet often hilarious memorial drew a massive crowd of mourners seeking to pay tribute to a man "balanced effortlessly and gracefully between the sacred and the silly.” Somber in a dark suit, Belafonte spoke poignantly about Henson - "Greater than his artistry was his humanity" - who like him had often "moved among the wretched of the earth." He described mothers in Africa holding children who faced a lifetime of hardships, seeing them laugh at Sesame Street or The Muppets: "They learned to love in an often loveless place...to see there is hope, there is joy, there is greatness in difference. That was Jim's gift." Then he began to sing Turn the World Around, a traditional song he learned from a storyteller in Guinea that he performed on a 1979 Muppets episode. It's about the fire, the sun, the water that work together to turn the world around; humans must also come together, see each other, help each other do the same. "We are of the spirit/Truly of the spirit/Only can the spirit/Turn the world around," he sang. "Do you know who I am?/ Do I know who you are?/See we one another clearly/Turn the world around," punctuated with a soaring, "Woah oh! So is life, so is life!" Belafonte died Tuesday at 96. A standard-bearer of uncommon heart, love, intellect, steadfastness, he "met the moment throughout his life." What a loss. May his memory be for a blessing.
SBCH - Harry Belafonte: Don't Stop The Carnivalyoutu.be
Harry Belafonte and The Muppets - Earth Song (short version)www.youtube.com
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