It was one of those records that find their way into every record collection – Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Shadows. This one was the album with Harry Belafonte performing live at the Carnegie Hall.
People fall to singing all of Belafonte’s popular songs by rote, but there was one famous tune that tickled the rebel that simmered in us kids – “Mama Look a Boo Boo”.
Although dads laughed easily with the lyrics –“…shut up your mouth! | That is your daddy | Oh no, my daddy can’t be ugly so…” – I don’t think any father fully understood that in most homes, loving opinion was divided on whether or not he was ugly; and by how intensely the tyranny of his yelling at us caused shifts in our perception of his beauty.
Belafonte understood this dynamic well and turned it into folksy humour. Such as in “Matilda”, where his girl cleaned out the bank account and sought refuge in a country without a reciprocal extradition treaty – ”Matilda… she take me money and run Venezuela.”
To wit, Harry Belafonte understood the human dynamic well and turned the emotions of the human suffering into song–and that has long been the outlet for generations who have lived under the yoke of an existence without career choices.
Take for example, “The Banana Boat Song” – “Day-O”. It was a song from Jamaica, sung by workmen–fruit-loaders who laboured all night and simply wanted to go home at daybreak, after the overseers were done auditing up their haul.
The songs are lilting, funny and rhythmic and that’s enough for the entertainment – and at sing-songs at parties, people can sing The Banana Boat Song without a socio-economic care and air-punch the defining refrain –“Lift six foot, seven foot, eight foot… BUNCH!”
Under the bright marquees and the spotlights of theatre, people seldom bother that art and humour have always been tools for coping with the pain of hard- or bonded- labour. But equally, it has never been the burden of entertainers to spell out their message – any more than standup comedians must explain their jokes. Their lives and their art is their activism. And Belafonte felt a deep sense of responsibility to use his platform to advocate for social justice and racial equality.
He needed neither persuasion nor role model in this crusade. An iconoclast well ahead of his time, he was described by Henry Louis Gates Jr as a “radical long before it was chic, and remained so long after it wasn’t.”
The Carnegie Hall album was released, 64 years ago, in 1959. That time, and the decade that followed, were marked by civil rights activism that led to the end of segregation. It was during this time that Belafonte was the most astir.
He funded the Freedom Rides – significant bus trips that were a part of the Civil Rights Movement where both black and white riders took buses to the segregated southern United States, where they would often be met with violence from white supremacists.
He helped out the organisers of the 1963 March on Washington. When Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Belafonte paid his bail and then helped support him financially. In 1964, he and Sidney Poitier put their lives at risk by transporting $70,000 in cash to voter-registration activists in Mississippi, even though three volunteers had earlier been murdered there. And he marched in Selma in 1965 with another Hollywood friend, Anthony Perkins (Psycho).
In appreciation, Coretta Scott King once remarked that, “…Harry motivated Martin [Luther King] because he was a man who didn’t have to get involved, and who did.”
The “didn’t have to get involved” bit refers to the fact that Belafonte was by then, a hugely successful performer and that too, with a principally white fan following.
Much is made of this – this reductionist notion that he didn’t really need to have taken risks and put himself in harm’s way. But racial bias can neither be measured nor rationed and Belafonte was no less a victim than anyone he stood up for.
There are the stories of how he had suffered. He had been denied service in restaurants. Although booked to perform in major Las Vegas hotels, Belafonte was forbidden from using the main entrance and could not eat or gamble or even stay in them. In the south, he faced an evening curfew because he was black. And when he starred with Joan Fontaine in a controversial movie about interracial romance (Island in the Sun, 1957), he was told not to mention Fontaine in interviews for fear of triggering speculation that there may be a real, off-screen romance brewing, which might offend sponsors.
These and other experiences taught him that for a black performer, on occasion and without warning, the privilege of fame could easily dissolve into an illusion, in practice.
But his success as a performer was no illusion. His underprivileged upbringing – born Harold Bellafanti, in 1927, in Harlem, New York, to immigrants from the West Indies – and the few unsettling years he spent in Jamaica (where he learned ‘The Banana Boat Song’) led to a series of fortuitous events.
It started with him dropping out of high school to join the US Navy, where he saw active service towards the end of WWII. After the war, while he worked briefly as an assistant to a janitor, someone gave him a ticket to a play. Watching the play, he found his path.
He joined the American Negro Theater where he met fellow West Indian, Sydney Poitier. Another break came in the form of a program for ex-servicemen – called the GI Bill Of Rights – that allowed him to study at Manhattan’s New School, where he met and befriended Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis.
One play – where he acted alongside Brando and Curtis – included a song. His singing so impressed a local talent hunter that he was booked to do a set at a jazz club called the Royal Roost.
He arrived at the club thinking not much of what lay ahead when he stopped in his tracks. Waiting for him, on stage, were Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
“I had to clear my throat about 90 times before I knew what key I was in,” Belafonte is said to have said.
Although that gig was a success, he did not care for a life as a jazz singer and saw that there was much more juice as a popular singer. This led to other performances and soon, a Tony award. And just as quickly, a leading role in the movie, Carmen Jones.
But it was the 1956 album, Calypso, that defined his stardom and, also, made calypso an enduringly popular musical form. Justifiably, he became the “Calypso King”.
That album was significant for another reason. It sold a million copies and it is believed that this was the first album ever to sell a million copies. Today, it would be called a “platinum album”, but that term was not invented until a few years later.
Harry Belafonte invested all his success in causes. And these causes went from his deep, hands-on involvement in the civil rights movements to helping upcoming performers get a break. One of these upstarts was a hesitant harmonica player – whom he included on a track in the 1962 album “Midnight Special” – Bob Dylan. Others he helped included singer-activists, South Africans Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
He got hip-hop into the mainstream with the 1984 movie Beat Street and its hit album. He was a principal influence in the 1985 ‘USA for Africa’ and that all-time famous single, ‘We Are the World’.
In 1987, he became only the second American to be named a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, a role he took over from another good friend and musical star, Danny Kaye.
And finally, to crown a career that had always enjoyed upward mobility, in 2015, he did the EGOT grand slam – an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and an (honorary) Oscar.
It appears that these seemingly endless successes only increased his resolve in the fight for social justice. While many would spend the sunset of such a dizzying career in contemplation, he fought harder.
“I tried to envision playing out the rest of my life devoted almost exclusively to reflection,” Belafonte said famously, “but there’s just too much in the world to be done.”
So he forged ahead politically and his strongest words came during these years.
He did not care much for the George W. Bush administration and criticised both black seniors in the Bush administration – Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. The latter, he said, had abandoned his principles and had “come into the house of the master.” (Powell later remarked that he did not need to know what it was to be black from Harry Belafonte.)
Belafonte also called Bush a terrorist and rechristened the newly constituted Department of Homeland Security, “Gestapo”.
And then he criticised America’s first black President, Barack Obama, for “failing to devote sufficient attention to the suffering of the poor.”
Donald Trump, unsurprisingly, was no favourite. On election day 2016, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “What Do We Have to Lose? Everything”, in reaction to the question Trump famously asked while soliciting the black vote: “What do you have to lose?”
In this effort, Belafonte never stopped. He did not stop his activism and never stopped performing… right from that day that he got that one set at the Royal Roost – and not many jazz singers had Charlie Parker and Miles Davis as sidemen in their first gig – to the day that he headlined solo at that pinnacle of performance spaces, Carnegie Hall. And it was that performance that led to its record version, “Live At Carnegie Hall” – songs from which we kids, almost 10 time zones away, learned to sing.
It was during the performance of one of the most popular songs from the album, “Mama Look A Boo Boo”, joined on stage with Danny Kaye, that Belafonte issued his light-hearted exhortation, which was a quote from one of his movies. When Danny Kaye was momentarily facing away from the audience while he pulled a dance move, that famous exhortation clearly, was one that was always been Harry Belafonte’s credo:
“Don’t turn your back on the masses, man.”
Ramjee Chandran is a writer, publisher, jazz guitarist and host of the podcast “The Literary City” for Explocity Bangalo