By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — The importance and impact of Harry Belafonte as an artist and activist cannot not be understated or minimized.
Belafonte, who died April 25 at the age of 96, smashed barriers and blazed trails in music and acting, while also being a constant participant in and contributor to demonstrations, marches and efforts on behalf of multiple social justice causes.
Born in Harlem, the son of Caribbean immigrants, his early-fame came as a vocalist. His album “Calypso” was the first to be certified selling over one million copies.
He was also the first Black vocalist to have a chart topping album, as he stayed at number one for 31 weeks in 1956. One of Bob Dylan’s earliest appearances came as a harmonica player on Belafonte’s 1961 release “Midnight Special.” But Belafonte walked away from many potentially lucrative musical appearances because he refused to allow segregated seating at his concerts.
As an actor and later director, he was equally adamant about roles and projects, turning down any he considered stereotypical or roles he felt were demeaning.
Despite his selectiveness, Belafonte as an actor and performer was an EGOT recipient (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), though the Oscar was in a non-competive category.
As an activist Belafonte had extraordinary significance. Among his many achievements, he helped support the Freedom Riders and was one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington as well as a fiscal contributor to and organizers of various marches.
Belafonte was a close friend and adviser to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was by his side on many occasions.
Later in 1985, he was a behind-the- scenes major force in getting together musicians and vocalists for the historic “We Are The World” single co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.
Among the numerous other honors he earned, Belafonte received the National Medal of Arts and Jean Hershokt Humanitarian Awards, along with NAACP Image and BET honors.
A host of dignitaries, artists and activists paid tributes to him as news of his death was known.
But Harry Belafonte’s films, music and presence will never be forgotten.