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Thursday, January 17, 2013

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Here at BAM we’re beyond excited that the legendary singer, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte will be the keynote speaker at our annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 2013 is a historic year—it’s not only the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation evoked in that speech. Jan 21, 2013 is also a historic day: Barack Obama with take the oath of office for the second time at the 57th Presidential Inauguration.

I can think of no one better to speak about civil rights and Dr. King’s legacy than Harry Belafonte. An incredible artist who has fought tirelessly against racism and oppression, he inspired Dr. King because he didn’t have to dedicate his life to a cause—his celebrity all but guaranteed him a privileged life. Yet he chose instead to use his fame and artistry to bring attention to the civil rights movement, and continues to devote himself to Dr. King’s vision by fighting to end inequality and injustice in all of its forms.

Most of us are familiar with Belafonte’s music—who hasn’t heard of "The Banana Boat Song? (Day-O!)"—but his life as a champion of human rights has been full of challenges and milestones. Here are 10 things I bet you didn’t know about Harry Belafonte:

1) He became interested in acting when he was working as a janitor’s assistant in the 1940s. A tenant gave him two tickets to see the American Negro Theater and he was hooked. Soon, he was up on stage with them.

2) He took acting classes at the New School for Dramatic Research with Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Sidney Poitier. (Fun story: because they had very little money, he and Sidney Poitier would buy one ticket to a show, and then switch places during intermission.) They became his lifelong friends whom we would later involve in the civil rights movement.

Harry Belafonte with Nat King Cole. We dare you to watch this and not smile. 

3) He was inspired by Paul Robeson’s folk singing and went to the Library of Congress to research folk songs from different cultures, especially the Alan Lomax archive. He made his artistic debut at The Village Vanguard.

4) He was the first performer ever to sell over a million copies of a single album—Calypso, which featured "The Banana Boat Song," (who can forget this scene in Beetlejuice?), and "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)."

5) Dr. King called him and said, “I would like very much to have a chat with you. It won’t take long.” Four hours later, Belafonte understood that he would become an integral part of the civil rights movement.

6) He was blacklisted as a communist for his social activism and association with prominent civil rights leaders.

7) He produced a series of Emmy-winning television shows on the American musical experience that featured a racially-integrated cast. When a sponsor complained, he refused to alter the format of the show.

8) He saw Miriam Makeba in Lionel Rogosin's film Come Back, Africa and was instrumental in bringing her to American audiences. They produced a Grammy-award winning album together (without a single English song!) that was subsequently banned in South Africa.

9) He wanted to do something to raise awareness about hunger in Africa; soon after, the song "We Are The World" was born.

10) He continues to speak out against injustice to this day, especially about issues concerning youth rights and the prison system.

For those interested in learning more about Belafonte, we highly recommend checking out his autobiography My Song, along with the documentary recently produced about his life, Sing Your Song. Both will leave you in awe of his passion and accomplishments.

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