Harry Belafonte – The Jamaican Whose Music Bridged Racial Divides

Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte, beloved popular music singer, entertainer, actor, human rights activist, and pan-African died April 25, 2023 in the US. America’s loss became Jamaica’s and the Caribbean’s.

He touched the lives of many in the global village by singing the rhythmic call and response calypso songs which are rooted in Caribbean culture. He was an icon who performed in numerous countries on various continents, such as North America, Europe, and Asia, and through him the masses were introduced to calypso.

However, Belafonte rose to prominence long before the world was introduced to his repertoire of Calypso music. He was a trained actor whose peers were Marlon Brando, Sydney Poitier, and Rod Sieger, and he appeared in numerous American Negro Theater Productions. Movie lovers were exposed to his talent in the late 1950s.

Who would have imagined that a boy who spent his formative years in Aboukir, St Ann, Jamaica, less than 15 miles from the birthplace of reggae icon Bob Marley and the same district in which my father grew up would have introduced calypso, this lovely Caribbean musical genre, to people living in the US, so much so that he sold the most records in 1956 from his album entitled Calypso.


Belafonte was undisputably the most famous black singer and entertainer in the late 1950s. He was the first singer to get white people to listen to the music and lyrics of songs with the cultural, sociological, and economic perspectives of the Caribbean, although those who listened to his songs were mostly white folks.

The songs he belted out to large audiences and on vinyl were grounded in the way of life of Caribbean people, who were for the most part black working class. From these songs, those who were not black and even those who were, such as Afro Americans, gained knowledge of the shared and lived experiences of the African Diaspora and the hybrid people who comprised the population of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Antigua, St Vincent, Puerto Rico, and other places watered by the Caribbean sea. Song of the Banana Man tells the daily labouring of the workers in the banana industry controlled by large American conglomerates and capitalists organisations.

Jamaica Farewell informed the musical audience that black people were not forgetful of their Caribbean roots. One can construe that by singing lyrics pertaining to Caribbean society and way of life, Belafonte put Caribbean islands on the world map. From invisibility and marginalisation, countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became known in tourism circles.

Belafonte was not afraid to connect with singers of other hues and genres. His good looks and ability to fraternise led to musical duets with giants such as Julie Andrews, Nat King Cole, Miriam Makeba, Danny Kaye, and Nana Mouskouri. Musical audiences as far away as Japan in Asia and Germany and England in Europe were exposed to the great songs of this gentle giant.

I must add that this Jamaican American has left a rich legacy because he used his fame and celebrity to help the oppressed. His early involvement with the American civil rights movement and being a friend of Martin Luther King Jr brought out the best in this champion of humanity. He supported the marches against racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans. He was renowned for financing bus trips to places of protest during the civil rights era.

But he was also known for his stance against the South African apartheid system. Belafonte used his status, clout, and fame to influence politicians and power shakers against complicity with the white murderous and racist regime of South Africa. The world thanks him for that.

I personally attended the only concert in Jamaica, held at Addison Park, Brown’s Town, in the garden parish of Jamaica (St Ann). Belafonte performed magically and demonstrated his singing and exceptional natural ability as he belted out melodious song after song. I could discern that in his band were great South African musicians who were free to play to all people that Friday night, yet they were banned at that time by the racist South African regime from performing in their own country, all because they were black and spoke out against oppression.


Belafonte was given one talent, but he turned the one talent into 10. He served his people, the nation, and the world. I hope there will be other people in life who will do good to benefit humanity. Rest in peace, great singer.

By Guest Author: Winston Donald

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Winston Donald

My name is Winston Donald. I am currently completing a MA in Cultural Studies researching Street Art ( from a cultural studies perspective) I am Recruiting Officer and Enrollment Officer for University College of the Caribbean, New Kingston. I contribute to the Commonwealth Short StoryCompetition Columnist for the defunct Sunday Herald Newspaper Author on Marijuana : Export trade and Rural economics (manuscript being completed) Author on Rural Jamaican Cooking Creator of The Diaspora - Word Press blog Contributor to Sun Sentinel newspaper of South Florida Regular/Frequent contributor to the Gleaner and Observer newspaper

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