Singer – Songwriter – Musician – Actor – Civil Rights Activist
This blog is long overdue for a man who put himself on the line with his prominent Civil Rights activities and who is still kicking but today even though on the 1st March 2021 he saw his 94th birthday.
We should add before we skip through his life that this blog is also a ‘music party blog’ to be exact a CALYPSO PARTY.
Harry Belafonte was mentored in his political beliefs by Paul Robeson, he was also a close confident of Martin Luther King Jr. and as with many activists he came under the spotlight of ‘McCarthyism’ and was blacklisted.
Belafonte did not play at Civil Rights,he got his hands dirty and was in the mix, amongst the many, many things he was involved in are some notable historic moments.
He financed the ‘1961 Freedom Rides’, supported Voter Registration Drives, and helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington. During the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, he bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of Birmingham City Jail and raised $50,000 to release other civil rights protesters and during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, Belafonte bankrolled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, flying to Mississippi that August with Sidney Poitier and $60,000 in cash and entertaining crowds in Greenwood.
Harry Belafonte with Martin Luther King Jr
His list of political activities seem endless and always on the side of the oppressed – the underdog. In 1985, he helped organise and produce the song We Are the World, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa and performed in the Live Aid concert that same year. In 1987 he became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, he served as chairman of the ‘International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children’.
No decade in his life did he seek a quiet life, by the new century he was campaigning against HIV-AIDS, he is on the board of directors of the non-profit making Civil Rights Advancement Project, he also served on the Advisory Council of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He met with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and opposed George Bush Jr. Middle East war ambitions; on the Black members of the Bush administration, he used a Malcolm X quote when describing Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice:
“There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege.
Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture”
We could go on and on about this remarkable man’s life, and we have not yet mentioned that he made 35 films between 1953 and 2020 including Carmen Jones (1954) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018).
However let’s jump to the music that most people in the world remember him for, no small thing – he introduced CALYPSO MUSIC to the world.
The single Matilda (1953) became the first widely released Calypso song and was an instant success; this was followed in 1956 by the album Calypso. This album became the first album to sell over a million copies, including the first album to sell a million copies in England alone (I’ve got 2 vinyl copies just in case). Belafonte was nicknamed the King of Calypso, he liked the tag, but true to form he always emphasised that Trinidad & Tobaga were the origins of Calypso music.
At the beginning of his musical career he was a club singer, being backed by the likes of Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis; however at heart he saw himself as a ‘folk singer’, he studied material from the Library of Congress American Folk Songs Archives, in particular music of African Blackroots’, something that dominated his musical output for decades.
There are many things to admire this man for, but let’s be honest Calyso music put sunshine into everyone’s life and a smile on every face.