Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was an actor, the first Black television producer, a Civil Rights activist who was close friends with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a singer who helped popularize Caribbean folk music known as calypsos.
Belafonte is originally from Harlem, but when his mother returned to her native Jamaica, he followed. As a teenager Belafonte dropped out of high school to serve in the United States Navy. Afterwards, Belafonte returned to New York City and gained his on-screen wisdom from German expatriate stage director Erwin Piscator. Piscator worked with students in his Dramatic Workshop, a drama and acting school with alums including: Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, and Tennessee Williams.
His studies at the Dramatic Workshop led to gigs in nightclubs and eventually a recording contract as a singer. Belafonte emerged as a leading folk singer. His most popular songs were “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)”, “Jamaica Farewell,” and "Jump in the line." The success and inclusive popularity of these songs created a widespread affinity for calypso music. With Belafonte's name inextricably linked to the calypso genre, he became known as the King of Calypso.
Where did Belafonte's activist leanings derive? His mother. Despite periods of financial setback, Belafonte's mother refused to accept second class citizenship. Observing his mother having the courage to walk away from employers who mistreated her, contributed to Belafonte's activism. When referred to by racial epithet or other racially charged language, Belafonte's mother refused to provide a service or opted against finishing work. In his youth Belafonte learned from observing his mother's interactions with white America, the importance of self-respect and he recognized the need to demand that his humanity be honored.
Into his late 80s, Belafonte's activist spirit remains alive and strong. When asked by The Guardian about the oppression of people of color, or inequities that exist in Hollywood and in 21st century America, Belafonte offered keen insight into directives he would undertake to assist people of color. When asked about his impressions of (then President) Barack Obama, Belafonte did not hold back in explaining why he believed President Obama was incapable of improving the lives of oppressed people. He thought President Obama was a continuation of bad policy cloaked in Black skin. Belefonte offered the following poetic analysis of the state of stagnant American politics:
"Politics without morality is the politics of tyranny. Politics with morality is what moves civilizations along to its best condition"