The Kennedy Center

Harry Belafonte


An actor, humanitarian, and the acknowledged "King of Calypso," Harry Belafonte is one of the most successful African American pop stars in history. As an entertainer and producer, he brought Jamaica's calypso beat to mainstream audiences, and then used his fame to fight against racial and social equality. Born March 1, 1927 in New York, Belafonte is the son of Caribbean-born immigrants, and, growing up, he split his time between Harlem and Jamaica. He enlisted in the United States Navy, and after his discharge, he resettled in New York City to forge a career as an actor. He performed with the American Negro Theater while studying drama at Erwin Piscator's famed Dramatic Workshop, alongside the likes of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, and Walter Matthau. A singing role resulted in a series of cabaret engagements, and eventually, Belafonte even opened his own club. In 1949, he launched his recording career on the Jubilee label, and in 1953, he made his debut at the legendary jazz club, the Village Vanguard. With a lead role in the film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones, Belafonte shot to stardom. After signing to the RCA label, he released Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, which reached the number three slot on the Billboard charts. His next release, titled Belafonte, reached number one and jumpstarted the national crazy for calypso music. Calypso, issued in 1956, topped the charts for 31 weeks and featured hits such as "Jamaica Farewell" and "Banana Boat (Day-O)." His other recordings include Jump Up Calypso, The Midnight Special, Belafonte at the Greek Theatre, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba and In My Quiet Room. Belafonte also became television's first African-American producer, and his special "Tonight with Harry Belafonte" won an Emmy award in 1960. His film credits include Island in the Sun, Odds Against Tomorrow, Buck and the Preacher, Uptown Saturday Night and The Angel Levine. After a long absence from the screen, Belafonte took on a number of film roles in the mid-1990s, notably in White Man's Burden and Kansas City. In the 1970s and 1980s, Belafonte focused his efforts toward humanitarian causes, becoming a central figure for the USA for Africa effort when he sang on the 1985 single "We are the World." A year later, he replaced Danny Kaye as UNICEF's Goodwill Ambassador. Both the Peace Corps and UNICEF have honored Belafonte's work.