Entertainment Profile: Harry Belefonte
by Kenney Dennard
Over the passed year we've paid homage to many black entertainers in this section of the Informer. Many of the entertainers we've focused on did a lot more than just entertain. Many of them, such as Jim Brown, Sidney Poitier, Dick Gregory, Lena Horn and Wyclef Jean used their celebrity status as a platform to give back to the community. Harry Belafonte may be one of the best examples of an entertainment icon that used his status to change lives for the better and make a difference throughout the world. Today, at 83 years old, he is known worldwide for his accomplishments as a recording artist and singer, as an actor and producer and for his commitment to civil and human rights.
Belafonte was born in Harlem NY but later moved back to his mother's homeland, Jamaica, where he discovered the Folk Music that would become his trademark. He started his career taking classes at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York in the 1940's. He studied alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur and Sidney Poitier. He then began his career in music as a club singer to pay for his acting classes. By 1952, he had signed with record label RCA Victor. Belafonte also began his Film Career with his role in "Bright Road" in 1953. Around that time he released his first single, "Matilda" It went on to become his signature song.
Harry would begin to play in several other films, including "Odds Against Tomorrow," and "The World, The Flesh and The Devil." He was offered the role in "Porgy and Bess," but turned it down because of the racial stereotyping in the story. Eventually, feeling dissatisfied with the roles he was offered, he went back to music.
In 1956, his third album, "Calypso," became the first LP to sell over 1 million copies. It spent 31 weeks at number one. One of the singles off the album was "The Banana Boat Song," reached number 5 on the charts. It featured his signature lyric, "Day-O."
Belafonte continued to release music throughout the 60's and 70's. In 1959 he became the first black man to win an Emmy, with his solo TV Special "Tonight With Belafonte." In 1961, he performed at the Inaugural Gala of President John F Kennedy.
Belafonte was an early supporter of The Civil Rights Movement in the 50's and 60's and was one of Dr. Martin Luther King's confidants. President Kennedy named him a cultural adviser to the Peace Corps in 1960. He provided Dr King for money on many occasions and also bailed him out of jail in Birmingham. He financed the Freedom Rides, supported Voter Registration drives, bankrolled the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and helped organize the March on Washington in 1963.
Harry would only briefly go back into Film, starring alongside Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor in Sidney Poitier's, "Uptown Saturday Night," as Geechi Dan Buford in 1974. He would produce and do the score for "Beat Street" in 1984. Then in 1995 he played alongside John Travolta in "White Man’s Burden."
Belafonte continued to give back when he could through out his career. In 1985 he was one of the organizers behind the Grammy Award winning song, "We Are The World." He was appointed UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) Ambassador in March 1987, then immediately traveled to Dakar, Senegal, where he served as chairman of the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children.
The United States awarded Belafonte the National Medal of the Arts, one of its highest honors, in 1994. In 2000 he received the Ronald McDonald House Charities' 2000 Award of Excellence in recognition of his charity work. With the $100,000 honorarium from this award, Belafonte launched the Harry and Julia Belafonte Fund for HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, which is administered by the US Fund for UNICEF.
Harry Belafonte is one of our great African American Historians. He always stayed true to his heart and continues to be involved with humanitarian and civil rights across the globe.
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