Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor and activist whose widespread success paved the way for other black artists in the 1950s, passed away Tuesday at the age of 96.
Mr. Belafonte, a child of Harlem, used his platform at the height of the entertainment world to regularly speak out about his music, how black life was portrayed on screen and, most importantly to him, the civil rights movement. Here are some of the insights Mr. Belafonte provided to DailyExpertNews during his many decades in the public spotlight, as they appeared at the time:
Mr. Belafonte’s string of hits, including “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell,” helped create an American obsession with Caribbean music that led his record company to promote him as the “King of Calypso’.
But Mr. Belafonte never embraced that kind of monarchical title, dismissing “purism” as a “cloak for mediocrity” and explaining that he saw his work as a medley of musical styles.
He told DailyExpertNews Magazine in 1959 that folk music had “hidden in it a great dramatic sense and a powerful lyrical sense.” He also frankly admitted, “I don’t have a great voice.”
In 1993, he told The Times that he used his songs “to describe the human condition and to give people some insight into what’s going on worldwide, based on what I’ve been through.”
For example, he said that “Day-O” was a way of life.
“It’s a song about my father, my mother, my uncles, the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the sugar cane fields of Jamaica,” he said. “It’s a classic work number.”
His views on film and television
Mr. Belafonte’s success in music helped him become a leading actor in Hollywood. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Belafonte and his friend Sidney Poitier were given more substantive and nuanced roles than black actors had previously received.
Nevertheless, Mr. Belafonte remained largely unsatisfied.
Writing for The Times in 1968, he complained that “the real beauty, the soul, the integrity of the black community is seldom reflected” on television.
“The medium is dominated by concepts of white supremacy and racist attitudes,” he wrote. “Television excludes the reality of Negro life, with all its grievances, passions, and aspirations, because to portray that life would amount to indicting (or perhaps enriching?) much of what is now white America and its institutions. And neither networks nor sponsors want that.”
Mr Belafonte stressed that his 10-year-old son saw few black heroes on television.
“The nobility in his heritage and the values that could complement his positive growth and sense of manhood are denied to him,” he wrote. “Instead, there is everything to tear him down and give him an inferiority complex. He will see the Negro only as a troublemaker and a social problem, never as a whole person.
Some 25 years later, Mr Belafonte was cautious, suggesting in an interview with The Times that little had changed.
“Even today, on the big screen, the pictures that are always successful are pictures in which blacks appear in the way white America buys it,” he said in 1993. “And we’ve been told that what we really want to express is not profitable .and is not commercially viable.”
His politics and activism
Even when Mr. Belafonte was in the prime of his entertainment career, he was heavily focused on activism and civil rights.
“In 1959,” Mr. Belafonte told The Times in 1981, “I fully believed in the civil rights movement. I had a personal commitment to it and I had my personal breakthroughs – I produced the first black TV special; I was the first black person to perform at the Waldorf Astoria. I felt that if we could just change the nation, everything would fall into place.
But Mr. Belafonte lamented that the movement had ended in the mid-1970s.
“When the doors of Hollywood closed to minorities and blacks in the late 1970s,” he said, “many black artists had been enjoying the exploitation for 10 years. But one day they found out the shop was closed.”
Mr. Belafonte remained outspoken about politics in his later years. In 2002, he accused Secretary of State Colin L. Powell of abandoning his principles to “get into the master’s house”; he called President George W. Bush a “terrorist” in 2006 and lamented in 2012 that modern celebrities had “turned their backs on social responsibility”.
“There is no evidence that artists have the same passion and dedication as the artists of my time,” he told The Times in 2016. “The absence of black artists is felt very strongly because of the most visible oppression in the black community.”
In 2016 and again in 2020, he visited the opinion pages of The Times urging voters to reject Donald J. Trump.
“The vote is perhaps the most important weapon in our arsenal,” Mr Belafonte told The Times in the 2016 article. “The same things that are needed now are the same things that were needed before,” he added. “Movements don’t die because struggles don’t die. ”