The Untold Truth Of Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte is arguably the most successful Jamaican-American artist in music history. Born to Jamaican parents, Belafonte spent several years in boarding school in Jamaica before high school, per the African American Registry. Nearly two decades later came the 1956 release of his breakthrough album, "Calypso," which popularized the Caribbean calypso genre of music among American and international audiences. According to Black History, "Calypso" was the first album by a single artist to sell over a million copies. The album also earned Belafonte the nickname "King of Calypso."

But Belafonte did not always intend to be a calypso singer. In fact, his initial sights weren't set on music at all; he was an actor first and foremost. In addition to his work in music, Belafonte was an actor on stage and screen, starring in movies such as "Carmen Jones" and "Island in the Sun." He was also behind the scenes of some of the foremost activism of the 20th century.

Harry Belafonte served in the Navy during World War II

He was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in 1927, reports The New York Times. His father, Harold George Bellanfanti Sr., was a cook in the British Navy, per the African American Registry. Harold (Jr.) followed in his father's footsteps at age 17, when he dropped out of George Washington High School and joined the United States Navy during World War II. The Navy was segregated at the time of the younger Belafonte's service in 1944.

That year, two military ships loaded with ammunition exploded and killed 320 people, most of whom were Black. "It was the worst home-front disaster of World War II," Belafonte told the Los Angeles Times, "but almost no one knows about it or what followed."

What followed was that Black seamen refused to keep handling ammunition in such unsafe, segregated conditions. Fifty of them were sentenced to prison. "The Port Chicago mutiny was one of America's ugliest miscarriages of justice, the largest mass trial in naval history and a national disgrace," Belafonte said.

Once he completed his service in 1945, Belafonte returned to New York to work in maintenance. He then used the G.I. Bill to pay for his classes at The New School Dramatic Workshop, alongside the likes of Marlon Brando and his lifelong friend Sidney Poitier, per Black Past.

Early in his career, Harry Belafonte tried out pop, jazz, and folk

Before Harry Belafonte became widely known for popularizing the calypso genre stateside, he dabbled in several different musical genres. While struggling to get his acting career off the ground, Belafonte hung around the Royal Roost jazz club in Manhattan, according to Jazz Times. He worked up the courage to ask the club's booking agent, Monte Kay, for a gig, and Kay agreed. As Belafonte's opening performance began, he was joined onstage by jazz greats Tommy Potter, Max Roach, and Charlie Parker. Belafonte was signed to Capitol Records shortly thereafter, but his early singles saw little success.

Still, before long, Belafonte was performing in upscale venue like Miami's famous Five O'Clock Club, crooning popular tunes onstage in front of primarily white audiences. It was around this time that he experienced firsthand the racism that even highly talented and successful Black musicians were subjected to in segregated America. He quit his Five O'Clock gig within a week.

That same year, Belafonte took an interest in folk music, learning many classics through the Library of Congress' archives of American folk songs, per Britannica. In the mid-1950s, he kicked off a string of hit folk albums with the releases of "Harry Belafonte" and "Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites."

Harry Belafonte played a powerful role in the Civil Rights Movement

Harry Belafonte has been committed to civil rights throughout his life and career. He was a supporter and close confidant to Martin Luther King, Jr., according to the King Institute. "Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open," Coretta Scott King wrote in her 2017 autobiography, "Coretta: My Life, My Love, My Legacy." According to the Sanders Institute, Belafonte paid for babysitters and housekeepers that allowed the Kings to travel to campaign.

According to the Sanders Institute, Belafonte marched with King and coordinated events and fundraisers. When Dr. King was held in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Belafonte raised $50,000 that allowed King's civil rights efforts to continue. Following the civil rights leader's assassination in 1968, Belafonte offered Coretta emotional support and served as an executor of King's estate and the chairman of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Fund.

Harry Belafonte was the first African American to win an Emmy

Harry Belafonte is on the cusp of EGOT status. Although he has won Emmy, Grammy, and Tony awards, Belafonte has yet to win an Oscar in competition. (He has, however, received an honorary Oscar: In 2014, he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.)

In 1954, Belafonte won his first major award: a Tony for his supporting role in the musical "John Murray Anderson's Almanac." In 1960, he made history as the first African American to win an Emmy award. He received the Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program for his work in the hour-long CBS variety special "The Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte." He then went on to win three Grammy awards for his music in the years that followed, including a lifetime achievement award in 2000.

"Sixty-one years ago — it is hard to remember specifics of an evening," Belafonte told The Hollywood Reporter of his 1960 Emmy win. "I am glad to have broken a barrier and so many since ... The diversity today in television is long overdue."

Harry Belafonte was active in the anti-apartheid movement

According to the Chicago Tribune, Harry Belafonte began protesting the policies of the South African government as far back as 1959. His advocacy for Black South Africans has continued for several decades. In 1965, he released the album "An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba," which dealt with themes relating to the struggles of Black South Africans under apartheid.

During the mid-1980s, Belafonte was involved in the USA for Africa supergroup, helming the highly successful "We are the World" charity single for African famine relief. That project led to a resurgence in Belafonte's career — and his activist efforts. In 1988, he released "Paradise in Gazankulu," an album of apartheid protest songs. Around this time, he co-founded a group with tennis player Arthur Ashe called Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. Belafonte was criticized by some for his call for artists to stop performing in South Africa during apartheid.

”To speak out against an unjust war was treasonous, to speak against the treatment of Blacks made you a Communist dupe,” Belafonte told the Chicago Tribune. ”But if you feel in your heart that you have a responsibility because of your good fortunes to advance justice and human rights, then you hang in.”