Harry Belafonte: A life well lived

Young Harry Belafonte smoking a cigarette

Trailblazer, icon, musical genius, actor, civil rights activist. Those are some of the words used to describe Harry Belafonte. However, any mention of Harry Belafonte is not complete without one of his famous quotes that epitomizes the kind of man he was. He famously said “…in my old age, if I live to see it, that I will be able to say that in my lifetime I did all that I could with what was at my disposal”. Well, the towering civil rights, musical and screen giant passed on at the ripe old age of 96. For sure, he did all he could with what was at his disposal to make the word a better place.

His is what you call “a life well lived”. But what exactly does that phrase exactly mean? Many definitions abound but the most relatable one is by the dream dean which states that “A life well lived” represents a life that was filled with happiness, achievement, and development over time. The only thing to add to that definition to make it complete is “making a difference”. That is what a casual observer will see when they look at the journey Harry Belafonte went through in the course of his life.

Musical prowess

Born in Harlem New York in 1927 to immigrant parents, Mr. Belafonte passed away due to congestive heart failure on the 25th of April 2023 in Upper West Side in New York. He rose to fame because of his musical talent. As Peter Keepnews of the New York Times notes, Mr. Belafonte almost single-handedly ignited a yearning for Caribbean music. His album Calypso was said to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies. It is not lost on many that at a time when segregation was still widespread and black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Mr. Belafonte’s scaling of the upper echelon of show business was historic.

Young Harry Belafonte recording a song

The hugely successful album Calypso was released in 1956 and by 1959, according to Mr. Keepnews, Mr. Belafonte was the most highly paid Black performer in history, with huge contracts for appearances in places such as Las Vegas, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and at the Palace in New York. In addition to this, Mr. Belafonte went on to get movie offers and did well in that sector too.

Some of his best and most celebrated songs are The Jamaican Farewell

and the Banana Boat song

both of which were in the Calypso album. His other popular songs include Matilda

and Island in the Sun

just to name a few. One of the profound musical undertakings he did was to help gather superstar musicians to record We Are the World.

The impact of the song was felt as it helped raise 64 million dollars for famine relief efforts in Ethiopia.

Harry Belafonte winning one of his many awards

Besides winning an Oscar, a Tony and a Grammy, PBS Newshour also notes that he was the first Black host of a late-night show when he hosted the Tonight Show for a week. His guests included Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King.

Deep reflections of a man with a conscience

To understand Mr. Belafonte’s activism, one has to understand what he felt in his head and what was in his heart at the time. And what better way than to listen or read from him directly. In one of his televised interviews of that era aired on CBC, he succinctly put it thus “I do not believe that because a man is black, he is right or that he has a right to offer his opposition based on color. But I do feel very strongly about the fact that great men have been disenfranchised for a long time and have not been able to sit in high places politically or on other levels because of color”. He further goes on to say “racism in its subtlest and its most evil sense has worked its way deep into the fiber of many men and women and with this going on has had an influence in my own life”. He drives the point home by noting that “I have come into my own manhood and I have sought to apply myself to this world. I have children and I have high hopes for them. I fought in the 2nd world war. I was in the United States Navy. I was told then and I fought with the knowledge that this was the war to end all wars. That we were going to defeat fascism and mankind could turn its attention to the best that was in man. Now I come and my son is 10 years old and I will arm him with everything that I can so that he will be free of any primitive, medieval concepts about false patriotism, about boundaries, about the meaning of flags. Mankind is much bigger than all these primitive symbols. I do not want to see my boy with his face stuck in some rice paddy off in Vietnam or some other land protecting the interests of the establishment and trying to reward their greed with his life. I am opposed to it. I do not want him to be armed with a sense of being able to go off and destroy another human being anywhere in the world who he has never known…. It’s inhuman, it’s terrible. And the reason I hang around is to make sure that in my old age, if I live to see it, that I will be able to say that in my lifetime I did all that I could with what was at my disposal because I would hate for my children to look at me and say where were you at the moment of the great decision”.

That is who he was and that was why he naturally gravitated towards activism and fighting for justice. He is one of those gifted and famous people who used their platform for the good of others.

Civil Rights involvement

That he was a fine musician is not in doubt. But his best work and his notable achievements are arguably in his contributions to the civil rights movements. A tribute by Oprah, carried by the BBC through Mark Savage, leaves no doubt as to his credentials as a civil rights icon. She is quoted as saying “Thank you for your music, your artistry, your activism, your fight for civil rights and justice,” she continued. “Your being here on Earth has blessed us all.” Singer John Legend’s message of Mr. Belafonte, whom he calls a friend and a mentor, reinforces this by stating “He gave so much, lived through so much [and] helped us grow so much as a nation and as a world.”

So, what exactly did he do to win all these accolades and admiration from many people? Democracy Now notes that he was one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s closest confidants. He sent money to bail out Dr. King and others out of their Birmingham jail. He also supported other related civil rights actions such as freedom rights, voter registration drives and the march on Washington in 1963. He supported an end to apartheid in South Africa and even hosted former South African president Nelson Mandela in his triumphant entry into the United States after his release from Prison.

It is said that he motivated Dr. King as he was someone who did not have to get involved but he did. He did it over and over again. Miriam Makeba, the South African songster remembers that Mr. Belafonte took other people’s struggles and made them his own.  


Harry Belafonte as an old man

Mr. Belafonte has deservedly been eulogized by the presidents, monarchs, top industry leaders, politicians, celebrities, and all manner of people from all over the world and all walks of life. He won a Grammy award, won an Oscar award and also won a Tony award. That is how good he was with his talent. His other love and passion of activism won the hearts and minds of many people from all over the world. It also won him many other honors such as the National Medal of the Arts. As the curtains come down on a man who rose to the challenge of his time and lived a life that left a mark, he is one of the people we can truly say without a doubt that his was a life well and truly lived.

Works Cited

CBC. (2012, February 16). Harry Belafonte on racism, patriotism & war, 1967: CBC Archives | CBC. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XUlCuW7Drc&pp=ygUYaGFycnkgYmVsYWZvbnRlIGFjdGl2aXNt

Democracy Now. (2023, April 26). “Sing Your Song”: Remembering Harry Belafonte, Who Used His Fame to Help MLK & Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vbnG00ojY4

Keepnews, P. (2023, April 25). Harry Belafonte, 96, Dies; Barrier-Breaking Singer, Actor and Activist. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/25/arts/music/harry-belafonte-dead.html

PBS Newshour. (2023, April 26). The life, career and activism of legendary performer Harry Belafonte. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a343fnc2Eb0

Savage, M. (2023, April 27). Harry Belafonte: Singer and civil rights activist dies aged 96. Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-65390525

The Dream Dean. (2014, April 11th). Retrieved from thedreamdean.com: https://thedreamdean.com/2014/04/11/a-life-well-lived/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CA%20life%20well%20lived%E2%80%9D%20represents,achievement%2C%20and%20development%20over%20time.

The White House . (2023, April 25). Statement from President Joe Biden on the Passing of Harry Belafonte. Retrieved from The White House: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/04/25/statement-from-president-joe-biden-on-the-passing-of-harry-belafonte/

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