Harold George Belafonte, Jr. (born March 1, 1927) is an American singer, songwriter, actor and social activist. He was dubbed the King Of Calypso for popularising the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s. Belafonte is best known for singing The Banana Boat Song, with its signature lyric Day O. Throughout his career he has been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes and was a vocal critic of the policies of the George W. Bush Administration.
Born Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr. in Harlem, New York, Belafonte was the son of Melvine Love of Jamaican descent and Harold George Bellanfanti, Sr. a Martiniquan who worked as a chef in the National Guard. From 1932 to 1940, he lived with his grandmother in Jamaica. When he returned to New York City, he attended George Washington High School after which he joined the Navy and served during World War II. In the 1940s, he was working as a janitor when a friend gave him two tickets to see the African American Theatre. He fell in love with the art form and also met Sidney Poitier. At the end of the 1940s, he took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the influential German director Erwin Piscator alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur and Sidney Poitier, while performing with the African American Theatre. He subsequently received a Tony Award for his participation in John Murray Anderson's Almanac.
Belafonte started his career in music as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. The first time he appeared in front of an audience, he was backed by the Charlie Parker Band, which included Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis. At first he was a pop singer, launching his recording career in 1949, but later he developed a keen interest in folk music. With guitarist and friend Millard Thomas, Belafonte made his debut at the legendary jazz club The Village Vanguard.
His first single, which went on to become his "signature" song was Matilda, recorded on April 27, 1956. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) became the first LP in the US to sell over 1 million copies within a year.
Belafonte has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk and gospel. His second-most popular hit, which came immediately after The Banana Boat Song, was Mama Look At Bubu.
In 1959 he starred in Tonight With Belafonte, a nationally televised special that featured Odetta, who sang Water Boy and who performed a duet with Belafonte of There's A Hole In My Bucket.
He was one of many entertainers recruited by Frank Sinatra to perform at the inaugural gala of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. That same year he released his second calypso album, Jump Up Calypso, which went on to become another million seller. During the 1960s he introduced several artistes to American audiences, most notably South African singer Miriam Makeba and Greek singer Nana Mouskouri. His album Midnight Special (1962) featured the first record appearance by Bob Dylan.
As The Beatles and other stars from Britain began to dominate the US pop charts, Belafonte's commercial success diminished. Belafonte has received Grammy Awards for the albums Swing Dat Hammer (1960) and An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba (1965).
From the mid-1970s to early 1980s he spent the greater part of his time touring Japan, Europe and Cuba. His involvement in USA For Africa during the mid-1980s resulted in renewed interest in his music. He subsequently released his first album of original material in over a decade, Paradise In Gazankulu, in 1988. The album contains 10 protest songs against the South African Apartheid policy and as of 2011 was his last studio album. In the same year Belafonte, as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, attended a symposium in Harare, Zimbabwe to focus attention on child survival and development in Southern African countries.
Belafonte was the first African American to win an Emmy, with his first solo TV special Tonight With Belafonte (1959).
Belafonte received the Kennedy Centre Honours in 1989. He was awarded the National Medal Of Arts in 1994 and he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
His first film role was in Bright Road (1953), in which he appeared alongside Dorothy Dandridge. The two subsequently starred in Otto Preminger's hit musical Carmen Jones (1954). In 1957's Island In The Sun, there are hints of an affair between Belafonte's character and the character played by Joan Fontaine. The film also starred James Mason, Dandridge, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie and John Justin. In 1959, he starred in and produced Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow. He also co-starred with Inger Stevens in The World, The Flesh And The Devil.
In 1984 Belafonte produced and scored the musical film Beat Street, dealing with the rise of hip-hop culture. Together with Arthur Baker, he produced the gold-certified soundtrack of the same name. Belafonte next starred in a major film again in the mid-1990s, appearing with John Travolta in the race-reverse drama White Man's Burden (1995) and in Robert Altman's jazz age drama Kansas City (1996), the latter of which garnered him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor. He also starred as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in the TV drama Swing Vote (1999). In 2006, Belafonte appeared in the role of Nelson, a friend of an employee of the Ambassador Hotel, in Bobby, Emilio Estevez's drama about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Belafonte and Marguerite Byrd were married from 1948 to 1957. They have two daughters: Adrienne and Shari. Shari Belafonte is a photographer, model, singer and actress.
On March 8, 1957, Belafonte married Julie Robinson. They had two children, David and Gina Belafonte. David Belafonte (a former model and actor) is an Emmy-winning producer and the executive director of the family-held company Belafonte Enterprises.
In April 2008, Belafonte married photographer Pamela Frank.
Belafonte's political beliefs were greatly inspired by the singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, who mentored him. Robeson opposed not only racial prejudice in the United States, but also Western colonialism in Africa. Belafonte's success did not protect him from racial discrimination, particularly in the American South. He refused to perform there from 1954 until 1961. In 1960 he appeared in a campaign commercial for Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Kennedy later named Belafonte cultural advisor to the Peace Corps.
The 2011 Sundance Film Festival featured the documentary film Sing Your Song, a biographical film focusing on Belafonte's contribution to and his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement in America and his endeavours to promote social justice globally. In 2011 Belafonte also presented his memoir My Song.
Belafonte supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and was one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s confidants.
In 1994 he went on a mission to Rwanda and launched a media campaign to raise awareness of the needs of Rwandan children.
In 2001 he went to South Africa to support the campaign against HIV/AIDS.
In 2004 Belafonte went to Kenya to stress the importance of educating children in the region.
Belafonte has been a longtime critic of US foreign policy. He began making controversial political statements on this subject in the early 1980s. He has at various times made statements opposing the U.S. embargo on Cuba, praising Soviet peace initiatives, attacking the US invasion of Grenada, praising the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, honouring Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and praising Fidel Castro. Belafonte is additionally known for his visit to Cuba which helped ensure hip-hop’s place in Cuban society.
Belafonte achieved widespread attention for his political views in 2002 when he began making a series of comments about President George W. Bush, his administration and the Iraq War. He described Bush's father, former President George H. W. Bush as the creator of Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban during his days as CIA chief.
Belafonte is an ardent supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.