From the struggle for Civil Rights to opposing apartheid in South Africa and the blockade of Cuba, Harry Belafonte was a lifelong radical – and a fighter for justice both at home and abroad.

(Credit: National Archives)

Harry Belafonte, the pioneering singer, songwriter and actor who began his career singing calypso before turning to political activism, has died at the age of 96. 

Beyond his groundbreaking contribution to the arts, Belafonte was a committed in the fight against imperialism, worker oppression and racial discrimination, using the platform his artistic talents afforded to him to oppose injustice in all forms. ‘I have to be part of the rebellion that tries to change all this,’ he told the New York Times in 2001. ‘Anger is a necessary fuel. Rebellion is healthy.’ 

Born in Manhattan, New York, Belafonte spent his early childhood in his parent’s native Jamaica. After returning to America, he volunteered with the US Navy to fight fascism in World War Two. His artistic ambition was sparked after working as a cleaner in a New York theatre in the late 1940s, eventually training under the iconic German communist director Erwin Piscator.

Belafonte began singing as a club singer to fund acting classes, but it was his musical talent that first propelled him to celebrity. Credited with popularising Caribbean music with international audiences, he was dubbed the ‘King of Calypso’. At a time when segregation was in practice in much of the United States, he would become the first black person to perform in many clubs and made racial breakthroughs in cinema. 

In the 1957 Robert Rossen movie ‘An Island in the Sun’, Belafonte played a black union leader from a fictional Caribbean country who has a love affair with a young middle-class woman played by Joan Fontaine, prompting threats to burn down cinemas in the American South. The roles Belafonte played over the course of his onscreen career regularly challenged and skewered the racism and injustice prevalent in American society.  

A prominent member of the Civil Rights Movement, Belafonte would become a personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr. A significant figure in the struggle against racism and discrimination in his own right, he used his wealth and fame to champion and fund anti-racist activism, bailing out activists, funding voter registration drives and bankrolling organisations opposing racism and promoting black liberation. 

As an actor, singer and songwriter, Belafonte’s artistic expression was too great to be confined to only one medium, and his opposition to injustice too principled to be limited to just one struggle. Like King, Belafonte recognised the linked oppression of racism, imperialism and capitalism, resulting in him being blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  

In the 1980s, he campaigned against apartheid in South Africa and later coordinated Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the United States. Belafonte’s opposition to apartheid was part of a broader stance against imperialism and oppression across the globe.

An outspoken opponent of the American invasion of Grenada, a supporter of Hugo Chávez and hostile to Cold War antagonism, Belafonte’s internationalism frequently pitted him against US foreign policy. A fierce opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he would receive considerable press backlash in 2006 when he declared George W. Bush ‘the greatest terrorist in the world’. 

Belafonte travelled the world as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1987 and later set up an AIDS foundation—part of his wider campaigning efforts to promote education and economic development in Africa, for which he would receive an Oscar in 2014 in honour of his humanitarian work.  

Belafonte said in an interview in 2011. ‘I was an activist long before I became an artist.’ Even in his late 80s, Belafonte was still speaking out about racial and economic inequality, urging President Obama to do more to help the poor, and later endorsing Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. Belafonte called for the ‘unleashing of radical thought’ to make progress on racial equality, and supported the Black Lives Matter movement, which he recognised as confronting the racial injustices that remained from the Civil Rights era.  

When an anthology of his music was published in 2017, Belafonte told Rolling Stone magazine that singing was for him a way to express the injustices of the world. ‘It gave me the opportunity to make social statements, to talk about things that I found unpleasant,’ he said ‘and things that I found inspiring.’

In many ways, Belafonte’s politics demonstrate that the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States was intimately connected with socialism—with Martin Luther King frequently criticising capitalism and leaders such as Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker having roots in the socialist movement. Harry Belafonte was very much part of this tradition and received the Medal of Friendship from the Cuban state in recognition of his solidarity with Cuba over the years. He had cultivated a close relationship with Fidel Castro since the start of the revolution.

In his memoirs, published in 2011, Belafonte talked about racism in pre-revolutionary Cuba:

‘When I became an artist and started to have some fame, I went to Cuba quite regularly before ’59. I went there with Sammy Davis Jr. to listen to Nat King Cole and to hang out with Frank Sinatra; the place where we met the most was the Hotel Nacional. Everyone was performing there except me. When they came to me—and I had a work contract—I was in an interracial marriage as it was called in those days, and suddenly I became persona non grata, in Cuba, everywhere.’ 

In September 2003, Belafonte gave a speech in New York condemning the US blockade against Cuba. When asked why he supported the Cuban people, he replied, ‘I don’t see it as a supreme effort,’ he said, ‘It’s a way of life: if you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, if you believe in people’s rights, if you believe in the harmony of all humanity.’ 

As much as Belafonte’s achievements in cinema and music are testament to his artistic greatness, his legacy of devotion to the liberation of people from all forms of injustice is evidence of one of the most remarkable moral and political figures of his era. 

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