Harry Belafonte: calypso with a conscience

A beloved musical icon since the 1950s, Harry Belafonte has an equally long reputation as a political activist. And the parallel themes of his public life, entertainment and activism, both have their roots in Belafonte’s childhood in Jamaica. James Ferguson finds out more

Illustration by Rohan MitchellCultural and political icon Harry Belafonte in the 1950s. Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1956, the year in which Elvis Presley topped the US singles chart with “Heartbreak Hotel”, America’s bestselling album was neither by Presley nor by the likes of Little Richard or Chuck Berry — but by a rather more unlikely superstar. Harry Belafonte’s Calypso remained at number one for thirty-one consecutive weeks, and was the first LP in US history to sell more than a million copies. The improbability of its success lay not in the artist’s talents (the good-looking and suave Belafonte was a consummate crooner), but more in the fact that the album showcased aspects of what was then little-known Caribbean popular culture — and that the performer was an American-born political militant close to Martin Luther King, Jr, and the communist sympathiser Paul Robeson.

The two main themes of Belafonte’s long and distinguished career — entertainment and activism — may at first glance appear contradictory. Surely the superficiality of popular music and Broadway offers a bad fit with the seriousness of the struggle for civil rights and socialism? Not necessarily. Both sides of Belafonte’s life can be traced back to his early years in New York and Jamaica, and both are very much interrelated.

Harold George Bellanfanti was born ninety years ago this month, on 1 March, 1927, in Harlem. His parents were both of Jamaican origin: his maternal grandparents were a black sharecropper from St Ann parish and a white woman of Scottish descent, while his father’s parents were a black Jamaican woman and, in Belafonte’s own words, “a white Dutch Jew who’d drifted over to the islands after chasing gold and diamonds, with no luck at all, in the newly formed colonies of West Africa.” The family was thus a microcosm of the Caribbean melting pot formed by generations of migration and slavery, and the young Belafonte was brought up aware of all the nuances of colour to be found in the region.

In her book Becoming Belafonte, Judith E. Smith describes the daily hardships of poverty and racism confronting young Harry and his parents, Millie and Harold, Sr, in 1930s New York. Work was precarious, accommodation often squalid, and after a younger brother, Dennis, was born, Harry’s father began to distance himself from the family. As illegal migrants, they lived in fear of deportation, and the name Bellanfanti was changed to Belafonte to throw immigration agents off the scent. Fearful for her older son in a climate of rising racial tension, Millie sent him to her mother in Jamaica for a year in 1934. Then in 1936, as the Depression intensified, Millie took her two sons back to Jamaica again, enrolling them in separate schools, where they would stay until 1940.

 

This early experience was to prove life-changing. Far from the raucous street life of Harlem, Belafonte was subjected to the stifling conformity of British colonial society and its anachronistic education system. He was, writes Smith, forced to eat in the kitchen when guests came to dinner at his aunt’s house, considered too dark-skinned for polite society. To this ostracism was added his witnessing of woeful social conditions, the labour strikes in Kingston in 1938 (“a violent peasant uprising,” he said), and their inevitable repression.

But if Belafonte’s sense of injustice was fuelled by these years, so too was his appreciation of the Caribbean’s diverse musical landscape. Kingston was alive with music, particularly mento, the gentle acoustic predecessor of ska that was loved by cruise ship tourists. There was also calypso from Trinidad, enormously popular in Jamaica, and full of acerbic political commentary. Belafonte had previously been fascinated by the swing music of Duke Ellington and New York’s vibrant black culture, and now he experienced at first hand the sounds of the Caribbean and South America.

Returning to Harlem aged thirteen, Belafonte again faced poverty and prejudice. He dropped out of school, did menial jobs, and eventually enlisted in the navy. A chance encounter led him to watch a performance by the American Negro Theatre. Friendly with Bahamian Sidney Poitier, he studied acting at New York’s prestigious New School (where contemporaries included Poitier, Walter Matthau, and Marlon Brando). This he paid for by singing in clubs. His first single, “Matilda”, was a hit calypso of 1953, in which he lamented: “Hey! Ma-til-da; Ma-til-da; Ma-til-da, she take me money and run a-Venezuela.”

It was the million-selling album of three years later, however, that earned him the title of “King of Calypso” — a title with which he admitted he felt uneasy. The songs on the Calypso LP, he pointed out, “weren’t calypso at all — even though everybody seems to have hung that tag on them.” And he was an American, not a Trinidadian — the true prerequisite for calypso royalty.

More particularly, his signature song, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, may have been thought of as a calypso, but in reality its roots lay in mento and, further back, as a traditional call-and-response folk song performed by Jamaica’s banana workers as they loaded the cargo onto United Fruit boats. The song records the workers’ fatigue after a night’s work, their desire to go home, and their impatient wait for “Mister tally man” to record their work rate and pay:

Work all night on a drink of rum
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Stack banana till de mornin’ come
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Far from repeating the clichés of the Caribbean idyll, the song evoked a gruelling and thankless job where the “deadly black tarantula” posed a real threat. In this sense, while spectacularly successful in commercial terms, it also introduced the listener to a world in which poverty and hard work coexisted.

Nor did the 1957 film Island in the Sun, in which Belafonte appeared and sang the title song, present a sugar-coated version of the Caribbean. The film explores the political and racial tensions between the old colonial order and a newly powerful nationalist movement exemplified by Belafonte’s ambitious character, the politician David Boyeur. Again, the song is less about “paradise” than tough economic reality:

I see woman on bended knee
Cutting cane for her family
I see man at the waterside
Casting nets at the surging tide 

 

Even as Harry Belafonte was introducing an often suspicious American public to a non-white world, he was subtly challenging any misconceptions about the Caribbean. In a 2006 interview with the BBC, he remarked, “When I did the ‘Banana Boat Song’, for instance, that wasn’t just looking for a hit. What it did talk about was the working-class struggles of the people working on the plantations.” “Island in the Sun”, he added, “had content that talked about struggle.”

As an activist whose anger shows no sign of abating (ask Donald Trump), Harry Belafonte reminds us that it is possible to mix politics with entertainment, and that popular culture can be a powerful ideological force. His extraordinary career, encompassing a wide spectrum of artistic performance, provides ample proof of the transformative power of both words and music.

  • Horace Scobie

    Thanks, Caribbean Beat for continuing to remind us of an extraordinary legacy that belies the small size of our island populations.