This past week has seen the loss of one of the world’s most iconic voices in music and a paragon for societal progress, Harry Belafonte. Passing at his home in New York City from congestive heart failure on April 25th, the artist and activist leaves behind an immense legacy of influence across many spheres.
A longtime fixture of worldly vibrancy in North America’s musical tapestry (and perhaps now most readily associated with the iconic uses of his music in the film Beetlejuice), Harry Belafonte was born of Jamaican descent in New York City. He spent the majority of his childhood in Jamaica with his grandmother before returning to New York, soon seeing him leave high school to enlist for WW2. The working class man took on custodial jobs as he developed an interest in acting and the arts thanks to the American Negro Theatre, with these endeavours connecting him with other future stars including bandleader Charlie “Bird” Parker, actor-director Sidney Poitier, and Marlon Brando.
As Belafonte began his music career, he combined a deep interest in American folk music as well as calypso, which would become the unique shape of his sonic identity for much of his career. His debut album, simply titled Calypso, was the first LP to sell over a million copies in a single year and was a gateway into the genre for many Americans at the time. His fame skyrocketed across the 50s and the 60s saw him performing alongside such artists as Ella Fitzgerald and Julie Andrews, being dubbed the “King of Calypso” in America.
Across these decades Harry Belafonte was committed to even more purposeful work than his musical career; he was a staunch activist and clear supporter of the civil rights movement, serving as a confidant and financial support for Martin Luther King Jr. over the years. He was a vocal dissenter of American foreign policy and showed his support for Cuba, inadvertently cementing hip-hop in the culture of Cuba when he had discussed the burgeoning musical form on a visit to Fidel Castro. Belafonte was involved in Live AID, We Are The World, and served as a lifelong UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador from 1987 onward.
Harry Belafonte’s music and spirit touch on things so integral and cherished in human existence. His aim to find and foster joy amidst the weight of true struggles in our world was unparalleled, and through this energy he leaves behind, one can only hope to find inspiration to navigate life with half the vigour and care that this artist did.