Harry Belafonte

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My songs reflect the human condition. The role of art isn't just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be.

Harry Belafonte (born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr; March 1, 1927April 25, 2023) was a Jamaican-American singer, songwriter, activist and actor, born in Harlem, New York who was of Jamaican ancestry. He was dubbed the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean musical style in the 1950s including the song "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)". Throughout his career, he was an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes. He was a vocal critic of the policies of the George W. Bush presidential administration.


The sham engineers of the music industry, who steer the wheels of public opinion, are driving the good features of calypso into the ground.
Each and every one of you has the power, the will and the capacity to make a difference in the world in which you live in.
My social and political interests are part of my career. I cannot separate them.
  • The sham engineers of the music industry, who steer the wheels of public opinion, are driving the good features of calypso into the ground. I shudder to think what these greedy men will eventually do to this true art form.
    • As quoted in New Musical Express ( May 1957), also in NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1992) by John Tobler, p. 40
  • On all levels of life and as each day unfolds, respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. grows impressively, and the essence of this respect is the fact that he had deeper insights than most of us have appreciated. It is not mere poetry to call him prophetic. The accuracy of his prophecies is almost uncanny.
    By the early 1950's history had endowed him with a sense of the precise moment that Black people were ready for mass action, ready for its risks, and ready for its responsibilities.
    • "Martin Luther King, Jr : A Personal Tribute" in Freedomways Vol. 12, No. 1 (1972); also in Freedomways Reader : Prophets in their own Country (2000) By Esther Cooper Jackson and Constance Pohl, p. 378
  • When I was 40 and looking at 60, it seemed like a thousand miles away. But 62 feels like a week and a half away from 80. I must now get on with those things I always talked about doing but put off.
    • As quoted in Jet magazine (‪‪8 January 1990‬‬), p. 40
  • I work for the United Nations. I go to places where enormous upheaval and pain and anguish exist. And a lot of it exists based upon American policy. Whom we support, whom we support as heads of state, what countries we've helped to overthrow, what leaders we've helped to diminish because they did not fit the mold we think they should fit, no matter how ill advised that thought may be.
  • Even with all the difficulties and the frustrations that we feel—those of us who have been consistent in this journey—what makes it so remarkably attractive and encouraging are the men and women you meet on the way. I have met some glorious human beings: Eleanor Roosevelt, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Dr. King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara, and Cesar Chavez and others not quite so famous—they are the ones who really make the journey rewarding. The work I do with UNICEF. The men and women I’ve met in Rwanda, South Africa, working against HIV/AIDS, and the courageous things that simple, wonderful human beings do for each other.
  • In the face of all the inhumanity, their humanity feeds the capacity to endure and continue to pursue honorable solutions to our pain.
  • I think most important is that we have words that attempt to give us moral cleansing, so that somehow we hold those responsible for crashing into the Twin Towers and killing over 2,000 Americans citizens in cold blood, which is an act of terrorism — people who have done that should be sought out and brought to justice; there’s no question of that — but when we do what we have done, illegal war, going into the Middle East, bombing at will, and then hundreds of thousands of people get caught, who are either maimed or over 100,000 have already been killed, who are innocent men, women and children, and we chalk that off to a thing called "collateral damage," as if somehow that murderous thing that we’re doing so cruelly and so inhumanely has no judgment before world opinion, that we are somehow righteous and above criticism and above the law. That is unacceptable. And that’s what I speak out against.
  • I don’t think that we are a species or a people that can exist without making mistakes somewhere along the line. Some make mistakes that are greater than others. But I do believe that we should have the courage and the ability to look at something that we did, even if in the first instance we believed it, when in the wake of the aftermath and the truth, you find out that that was not the case, to then say, 'Let me go back and examine what led me to this conclusion. What gods was I serving? What masters was I serving? What was it all about?' and then try to be more instructive to people who will listen to you.
    • As quoted in Democracy Now! interview by Amy Goodman (30 January 2006)

Interview in The Guardian (2007)

"I chose to be a civil rights warrior" by Steve Howell in The Guardian (14 March 2007)
  • I have very little regard for consensus if it blinds you to the truth.
  • I could have made $2bn or $3bn — and ended up with some very cruel addiction — but I chose to be a civil rights warrior instead.
  • To reach someone's soul, you have to have a social relationship. … You can't just sit down in the cold world of legal jargon and settle the nuances of racism and what it does to the social and cultural fabric. … The rich in America are so isolated that for Bobby to come into this intimate experience with its victims was a revelation. You could see in his face the anguish and consternation. It played away at his conscience and soul.
  • There's a place for him, but he's the final determinant as to whether he achieves that or not. He needs to capture the imagination of a universe hungry for decent thought and passion. All he has to do is be truthful and have a vision for what to do and stop playing a goddamn game of politics. If he does that, he'll get everything he needs.

Quotes about Belafonte

  • the real point is that people like me and Harry Belafonte and even Martin Luther King are not Negro leaders. We're doing our best to find out where the people are and to follow them.
    • 1963 interview in Conversations with James Baldwin edited by Louis H. Pratt and Fred L. Standley (1989)
  • Since the 50s, Belafonte has used his celebrity status to aid the civil rights movement, influence the Kennedys, raise millions for Africa and support the anti-apartheid movement. The turning point was a meeting with Martin Luther King in 1953. Belafonte was already politically aware, his anger stirred by the way blacks were treated after they had fought for democracy in the war against Hitler. Then King, a relatively unknown preacher at the time, sought his aid. "We talked for four hours — it was a life-changing moment. From then on, I was in his service and in his world of planning, strategy and thinking. We became very close immediately."
    Belafonte gave generously to the civil rights movement and enlisted the support of Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Garner and other Hollywood stars. But, despite turning up at rallies with a legendary bag full of cash, he was far more than a political sugar daddy. The authoritative history of the movement by Taylor Branch has more than 100 references to Belafonte's role as a key adviser to King and a bridge to prominent white politicians, especially the Kennedys.
  • I just want to say how much we are indebted to my dear and abiding friend, Harry Belafonte, and to all the distinguished and famous artists and entertainers who have taken the time out from their prestigious schedules to be with us here in Montgomery, Alabama, as we march on the state capital tomorrow morning. I know that our thanks will go out to them and will abide them for years to come.
    • Martin Luther King, Jr., as quoted in The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans, Past and Present (1999) by Columbus Salley, p. 335
  • Some argue that Belafonte, because he is black, also cannot be a racist. But that is, of course, a racist argument. Again, it reduces someone's moral responsibility and intellectual autonomy to a racial stereotype — that all blacks are innocent victims who cannot be held responsible for their beliefs or arguments; or that all blacks are so oppressed that any bigotry they utter is permissible. Again, this simply robs blacks of their individuality. In Belafonte's case, it's simply bizarre. He is an extremely empowered man. He is also a bigot.
    The question to be asked of the left is therefore a simple one: Are you in favor of bigotry or against it? If you're against it, how can you not criticize and, indeed, ostracize a bigot like Belafonte?
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