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Belafonte Reappraised

Belafonte Reappraised

Harry Belafonte’s death at the age of 96 on April 25th produced a cascade of laudatory reminiscences and obituaries. All of these rightfully emphasized his contribution to American music—African-American folk music and calypso music of the Caribbean islands, in particular—and to the nonviolent Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time the Civil Rights movement arose in the 1950s and 1960s, Belafonte had already become a major recording artist and star. His 1956 LP Calypso was the first gold record, selling over a million copies in the United States alone, and remaining at the top of the Billboard album chart for 31 weeks.

Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones (1954). Alamy

Belafonte used his newfound wealth to fund the Civil Rights movement, and continued to do so for the rest of his life. He was also a prominent promoter of a cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, and responsible for organizing the all-star recording of ‘We Are the World’ to raise money for African famine relief. His obituary in the New York Times summarized his achievements like this:

At a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Mr. Belafonte’s ascent to the upper echelon of show…

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