Harry Belafonte: Life and Major Accomplishments

Harry Belafonte was a prominent Jamaican-American singer and actor who popularized Caribbean calypsos in the 1950s. Besides his musical contributions, he was a dedicated activist, particularly in the civil rights movement.

In the article below, we take a deep dive into the life and major achievements of the renowned entertainer and social activist:

Harry Belafonte, born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York, is a name that resonates deeply in the spheres of music, film, and civil rights activism. His diverse contributions left an indelible mark on American culture and society, making him a treasured figure for many.


Early Life

Belafonte’s parents were immigrants from the Caribbean – his mother from Jamaica and his father from Martinique. They imparted in him a rich blend of Caribbean culture which influenced much of his work. In his early years, financial hardships forced the family to send young Harry to live with his grandmother in Jamaica. This experience steeped him in the island’s musical and cultural traditions. Returning to Harlem after nearly a decade, he faced the adversities that came with inner-city life.

In his younger days, Belafonte served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Post his service, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and began studying drama at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York alongside classmates like Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis.

Music Career

Belafonte’s music career blossomed in the 1950s. He introduced America to calypso music, with its rhythmic Afro-Caribbean beats, becoming widely known as the “King of Calypso”. His album “Calypso” (1956) was the first LP to sell over a million copies. The album featured his signature song, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” which till today evokes feelings of nostalgia and is a cultural staple in American music.

While calypso was his claim to fame, Belafonte’s repertoire was diverse. He delved into folk, gospel, and blues, introducing audiences to diverse genres and blending them beautifully. His captivating performances and unmatched vocal prowess made him a regular figure on American television and a sold-out concert performer.

Belafonte with Nat King Cole in 1957

Film and Theatre

Beyond his musical talents, Belafonte was also a gifted actor. He starred in films like “Carmen Jones” (1954) and “Island in the Sun” (1957). But he was more than just an entertainer. He often used his influence in Hollywood to break racial barriers, challenging the industry’s prejudices and advocating for better roles for Black actors.

His involvement with theatre led to significant roles in plays like “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” and “3 for Tonight”. His performances often transcended racial stereotypes of that era, presenting an alternative to the limited roles that were conventionally available for Black performers.

Belafonte speaking at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Civil Rights Activism

But Belafonte’s life was not solely about entertainment. Deeply affected by the racial inequalities he witnessed growing up and during his rise to fame, he became a fervent civil rights activist. A close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement, using his celebrity status to draw attention to the racial injustice that plagued America.

He funded initiatives, organized events, and participated in historic moments, such as the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. In one notable instance, when Dr. King’s family faced financial difficulties, Belafonte stepped in, ensuring their financial security.

Belafonte’s activism wasn’t restricted to U.S. borders. He spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, campaigned against the racial prejudices in the entertainment industry, and raised awareness about famine in Africa, leading to the famous “We Are the World” charity single in 1985.

READ ALSO: Notable Accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr.

On February 1, 2013, Belafonte received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for his incredible accomplishments in not just entertainment but also civil rights activism. Image: Belafonte (center) at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., with Sidney Poitier (left) and Charlton Heston

The First African American television producer

Harry Belafonte, after a thriving acting career, shifted his focus in the 1960s and became the first African American television producer. As a pioneer in this field, he produced numerous productions. Despite this diversion from acting, Belafonte’s passion for music remained unwavering.

He released “Swing Dat Hammer” in 1960, which earned him a Grammy for the best folk performance. Belafonte had an innate ability to recognize talent. His collaborations with international artists, such as the renowned South African singer Miriam Makeba and the esteemed Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, played a pivotal role in introducing them to the American audience. The album “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba” from 1965 further cemented his reputation, winning a Grammy for best folk recording.

After a hiatus from acting, Harry Belafonte made his cinematic return in 1970 with the drama “The Angel Levine.” He continued to grace the silver screen with notable performances in films such as “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), “The Player” (1992), “Ready to Wear” (1994), “The White Man’s Burden” (1995), “Kansas City” (1996), “Bobby” (2006), and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018).

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Harry Belafonte was not just an entertainer; he was deeply committed to social activism. A staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, he became a close confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr.

His humanitarian spirit extended globally, especially in Africa, illustrated by his participation in the charity anthem “We Are the World” in 1985. His dedication to children’s welfare led to his appointment as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1987.

On February 1, 2013, Harry Belafonte was honored with the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. This prestigious award is given annually by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) for outstanding achievement by an African American. Belafonte’s recognition was a testament to his significant contributions to entertainment, civil rights, and humanitarian causes.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored his philanthropic efforts with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014. His multifaceted influence was further recognized in 2022 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

His Legacy

Belafonte’s legacy is multifaceted. His calypso rhythms not only transformed American music but also brought a touch of the Caribbean to the world stage. He broke racial barriers in both the music and film industry, opening doors for future Black artists.

His activism went hand-in-hand with his art. He used his platform to shine a light on racial injustice, providing financial and moral support to those fighting on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. He consistently used his voice, not just for songs, but for advocacy, leading the way for future artists to use their platforms for activism.

In recognition of his immense contributions, Belafonte has received numerous awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

In 2011, HBO released the biographical documentary “Sing Your Song”, offering an in-depth look into Belafonte’s life, chronicling his music career, his Hollywood experiences, and, most prominently, his social activism.

Spouses and children

Harry Belafonte’s personal life was marked by relationships and challenges. He was first married to Marguerite Byrd in 1948, with whom he had two daughters, Adrienne and Shari. The marriage ended in 1957, amid Byrd’s pregnancy with Shari. Adrienne, along with her daughter Rachel Blue, later founded the Anir Foundation/Experience, aimed at humanitarian endeavors in southern Africa.

Belafonte’s second marriage was to Julie Robinson in 1957, a former dancer of Jewish descent. The couple shared two children, Gina and David. After nearly five decades together, they divorced in 2004. Four years later, in 2008, Belafonte wed Pamela Frank, a photographer.

Did you know…?

  • Harry Belafonte actively opposed and criticized the policies of the George W. Bush and Donald Trump presidencies, voicing his concerns and disagreements with their administrative decisions.
  • Harry Belafonte was truly an iconic performer and activist. He chalked an impressive array of awards throughout his career. He secured three Grammy Awards, one of which was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to his musical accomplishments, Belafonte won an Emmy and a Tony Award.
  • In 1989, his contributions to culture were recognized with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. Further, in 1994, he was honored with the National Medal of Arts for his outstanding contributions to the arts. In 2014, the Academy recognized his humanitarian efforts with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
  • By 2022, he added another feather to his cap, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Notably, Belafonte joins the elite group of EGOT winners, having received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, though his Oscar was non-competitive.


Harry Belafonte’s life story is a testament to the power of perseverance, talent, and the unwavering commitment to one’s beliefs. His music brought joy to millions, and his activism brought hope to countless more. While he shined in the limelight, he never shied away from the challenges of confronting systemic racism and advocating for change. A true Renaissance man, Belafonte’s works made him a beacon of inspiration for artists, activists, and all those who believe in making the world a better place.

Questions and Answers

Harry Belafonte, an iconic performer and activist, garnered an impressive array of awards throughout his career. The Jamaican-American secured three Grammy Awards, one of which was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to his musical accomplishments, Belafonte won an Emmy and a Tony Award. The icing on the cake came in 2022, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Belafonte’s life and career span several decades and encompass a wide range of artistic and activist pursuits, making him a multifaceted and influential figure in American history.

These are just a few of the most frequently asked questions about legendary musician, actor and civil rights activist:

Where was he born?

Born in Harlem to Caribbean parents, Harry Belafonte moved to Jamaica with his mother in 1935, returning to the U.S. in 1940.

After serving in the U.S. Navy during the mid-1940s, he studied drama in New York. A singing role eventually propelled him into nightclub performances and a recording contract.

How did he become a singer?

In the 1950s, Harry Belafonte became a pivotal figure in popularizing folk and calypso music. After immersing himself in the American folk song archives, he introduced Caribbean songs to wider audiences, earning him the title “King of Calypso.”

Hits like “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)”, and “Jamaica Farewell” cemented his status.

On Broadway, he debuted in the 1954 music revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” winning a supporting actor Tony Award. He continued to grace the stage with performances in “3 for Tonight” (1955) and “Belafonte at the Palace” (1959). In the former, he starred alongside American actor Gower Carlyle Champion (1919 – 1980).

In which film did he make his debut?

In 1953, Harry Belafonte made his cinematic debut in “Bright Road,” portraying a school principal. In the film, which was directed by Gerald Mayer, saw Belafonte appear alongside Dorothy Dandridge, Philip Hepburn, and Barbara Ann Sanders.

His significant breakthrough came the next year with “Carmen Jones” (1954) where he starred alongside Dorothy Dandridge again but didn’t sing. Their successful pairing was reprised in 1957’s “Island in the Sun.”

Later, Belafonte both produced and starred in “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959), which Shelley Winters, Ed Begley, and Robert Ryan.

Also, his versatility extended to television with the special “Tonight with Belafonte” (1959), celebrating African American music, for which he earned an Emmy Award.

What was Belafonte’s breakthrough album?

Belafonte’s career breakthrough album Calypso (1956) was the first million-selling LP by a single artist. The critically acclaimed album has hits like “I Do Adore Her”, “Jamaica Farewell”, and “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”. The 1956 work, which was his third studio album, went on to be his second consecutive number-one album on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart. About six decades after its release, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2018, the album was selected as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Recording Registry.

What works made Belafonte famous?

Harry Belafonte gained fame with hits like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” (1956) and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)” (1961). His diverse musical repertoire spanned blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards. Songs like “Jamaica Farewell” (1956) and “Mary’s Boy Child” (1956) further showcased his versatile talent and solidified his iconic status in the music industry. The latter is from his 1957 studio album, An Evening with Belafonte. The album included tracks like “Merci Bon Dieu” and “Danny Boy”.

Harry Belafonte’s acting career spanned decades, with roles in notable films like “Bright Road” (1953), “Carmen Jones” (1954), “Island in the Sun” (1957), and “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959). He also appeared in “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), “”White Man’s Burden” (1995). His final movie role was in Spike Lee’s acclaimed “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), which saw him take the role of Jerome Turner and appear alongside performers like John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Laura Harrier.

How exactly did Belafonte support the civil rights movement in the US and beyond?

Belafonte with King Gustav VI Adolf and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964

Harry Belafonte was not just an iconic entertainer; he was a fervent advocate for civil rights. During the 1950s and 1960s, Belafonte stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., acting as one of his closest allies. Recognizing King’s financial struggles, Belafonte provided financial support for King’s family, acknowledging the preacher’s modest salary. Unfortunately, Belafonte’s activism made him a target during the McCarthy era, resulting in his blacklisting.

In 1963, during the Birmingham campaign, Belafonte’s commitment shone through as he raised significant funds to bail out King and other imprisoned civil rights activists. His involvement wasn’t limited to providing financial support; he played a part in seminal events such as the Freedom Rides in 1961, the voter registration drives, and even helped organize the iconic 1963 March on Washington. Inspired by Paul Robeson and King, Belafonte said they shaped his backbone and nourished his soul, respectively.

1964’s Mississippi Freedom Summer saw Belafonte’s unwavering dedication when he funded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. With Sidney Poitier, he flew to Mississippi, offering both entertainment and a considerable cash donation to support the cause.

Beyond the borders of the U.S., Belafonte’s passion for justice was evident in his opposition to apartheid. He championed the Anti-Apartheid Movement, hosting an event in 1987 to honor African National Congress President Oliver Tambo. This global perspective led him to serve as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador from 1987, further emphasizing his commitment to humanitarian causes.

Furthermore, his board memberships with the TransAfrica Forum and the Institute for Policy Studies highlight Belafonte’s enduring commitment to policy change and global justice, making him a beacon of activism throughout his life.

READ ALSO: Most Renowned African-American Civil Rights Activists

How did Belafonte die?

Belafonte faced prostate cancer in 1996 but overcame it. However, in 2004, a stroke affected his inner-ear balance. Despite health challenges later in life, starting from 2019, he remained actively involved in the civil rights movement.

On April 25, 2023, at 96, Harry Belafonte passed away from congestive heart failure at his residence in Manhattan, New York City, leaving behind a remarkable legacy in both entertainment and activism.

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