The ‘Activist who Became an Artist’

Harry Belafonte Image Credit: screenshot

July 2, 2023—Harlem’s own Harry Belafonte will be honored next month during HARLEM WEEK 2023 with a public tribute to the legendary activist and artist, who used his reputation, personal money and leveraged his relationships in the entertainment industry to support the fight for civil rights, social justice, and humanitarian causes.

Mr. Belafonte died at his home on April 25, 2023, ending a trailblazing career that spanned six decades of working in theater, musical performance, television, and film. During his lifetime, he won three Grammy Awards; an Emmy, and a Tony. Mr. Belafonte also received the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, and the Motion Picture Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for a lifetime of activism.

His 1956 breakthrough record, “Calypso,” became the first album in history to sell over one million copies within a year of release. Nearly 30 years after “Calypso,” Mr. Belafonte and Quincy Jones produced the Grammy-winning single, “We Are the World,” which raised awareness of and money for famine relief in Africa. The song, performed by more than 45 world renowned artists, including Mr. Belafonte, sold more than 20 million copies. It raised nearly $45-million the first year for the organization established to distribute the proceeds—United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa.

Mr. Belafonte also participated in the first delivery of aid to Africa resulting from the “We Are the World” royalties, traveling to Sudan and Ethiopia. Two years later, he became the second American to be awarded the title of “Goodwill Ambassador” for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Mr. Belafonte served as the UNICEF ambassador for 36 years and used the position to mobilize artists and intellectuals in Africa to focus their efforts on alleviating hunger, polio, and malaria.

Mr. Belafonte often said of himself: “I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist, I was an activist who’d become an artist.” He was fiercely outspoken about the need to eradicate racism, poverty, and oppression, not only within the African American community, but also around the world. He was known to criticize generals, presidents, and civil rights leaders, whom he thought weren’t doing enough to foster change.

In his 2011 memoir My Song, Mr. Belafonte wrote about his journey as an activist-artist. He wrote about being “rocked” by the 1956 sermon given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Following that speech, Mr. Belafonte spoke of Dr. King as a transformative figure in his life.

He became one of Dr. King’s most trusted confidants, leading benefactors, as well as a life-long champion of civil and human rights. Mr. Belafonte personally recruited Marlon Brandon, Paul Newman, Tony Bennett, and Charlton Heston to attend the 1963 March on Washington, providing a show of white support behind Dr. King as he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. He also leveraged his friendships with other renowned entertainers and actors to fund the 1964 Freedom Rides.

In addition, Mr. Belafonte raised large amounts of money to bail civil rights leaders and rank-and-file protesters out of Southern jails, and he utilized one of his European tours to raise money for Dr. King’s efforts.

In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan shared his admiration for Mr. Belafonte, who helped launch Mr. Dylan’s career by hiring him to play harmonica on the album, “Midnight Special.”

About Mr. Belafonte, Mr. Dylan wrote: “He could play to a packed house at Carnegie Hall one night and then the next day he might appear at a garment center union rally. To Harry, it didn’t make any difference. People were people. He had ideals and made you feel you’re part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry.”

The New York State Legislature honored the legacy of Mr. Belafonte on June 7th.

How privileged we are to have experienced and benefited from the activism and artistry of Mr. Belafonte—a great leader for justice! I hope his legacy continues to inspire each of us to expand our work to contribute to building a more humanistic and creative community; a more just society.

As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your memories or comments about Harry Belafonte as an activist-artist below.

One thought on “The ‘Activist who Became an Artist’

  1. A great man of color, who was an inspiration for people around the world. He was a pioneer in the civil rights movement and musical industry. His footprint in the struggle for social justice and his long entertainment career is without a peer.

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