‘Jamaica Farewell': Harry Belafonte passes away and the Caribbean tries to find adequate words of tribute

‘Harry Belafonte sings of the Caribbean'; photo by Marko Forsten on Flickr, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

Harold George Bellinfanti, Jr., known the world over simply as Harry Belafonte, singer, actor and activist, passed away in New York on April 25 at the age of 96. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, somewhat ironic for a man who put heart and soul into everything he did.

Such a mighty figure was Belafonte that social media channels worldwide have been filled with personal tributes and reminiscences, as people from North America, Europe, the United Kingdom, and even Commonwealth countries such as India express their feelings about his tremendous impact on the world. Across the Caribbean, where his influence was strongly felt and where he was greatly loved and admired, tributes continued to flow despite some being almost lost for words.

Cultural activist and writer Barbara Blake Hannah did not know where to begin:

Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia “Babsy” Grange tweeted:

Born in Harlem on March 1, 1927, Harry Belafonte’s parents were both of Caribbean heritage: his father, a chef, was from Martinique, and his mother, a housekeeper, from Jamaica. He spent eight years of his childhood with his mother’s family in rural St. Ann, Jamaica, attending Wolmer’s School in Kingston. On his return to New York, he did not fare well at high school, thanks to his struggles with dyslexia. He signed up for the U.S. Navy at age 17 and served at a New Jersey military base during World War II.

After the war, Belafonte held a few low-paying jobs until, after a visit to the American Negro Theatre, he was inspired — along with Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier — to take acting lessons. The two became friendly rivals, but Belafonte’s career soon turned to music. As a singer and musician, his popular renditions of Jamaican folk songs broke barriers in much the same way that Poitier's opened up new possibilities for actors of colour.

Belafonte's first album, Calypso (1956), is said to be the first long-playing record to sell a million copies. This sparked a huge craze for Caribbean music during the 1950s, a significant accomplishment considering there was racial segregation in the U.S., when Black faces were hardly visible in the media and entertainment fields. Perhaps the most well-known track was “Day-O” (also called “The Banana Boat Song”), based on a Jamaican folk favourite about banana workers in Portland. The tune, an enormous hit on both sides of the Atlantic, became Belafonte’s signature song. “Jamaica Farewell,” a poignant, nostalgic tribute to the beauty of the Caribbean, with lyrics by Irving Burgie (“Lord Burgess”), an American of Barbadian heritage who penned many of Belafonte’s songs, was also popular. According to the New York Times, by 1959 the charismatic and handsome Belafonte had become the highest-paid Black performer in history, and was naturally in great demand.

Moving effortlessly from music to acting, Belafonte won a Tony Award in 1954 for his role in a Broadway musical, but as his acting career developed, he found himself turning towards a life of activism. He became good friends with, and was mentored by, Martin Luther King Jr. When King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, Belafonte was the one who posted his bail. Belafonte was also involved in organising, financing and raising funds for numerous causes, including the March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

More and more, Belafonte came to be known for his civil rights activism across the U.S. Later, he turned his attention beyond his country's borders, campaigning against apartheid in South Africa. His all-star charity record, “We Are the World,” raised over US $63 million for famine relief in Africa. Belafonte was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1987 until his death, and later campaigned to eradicate AIDS in Africa. As a prostate cancer survivor, he also advocated for awareness of the disease.

A fierce and fearless critic of racial injustice, Belafonte took on many human rights issues, including the Guantánamo Bay detentions, and criticised some Black American artists for their lack of involvement in matters of Black consciousness. His comments were sometimes controversial, but he always spoke his mind with conviction, a trait that many Jamaicans admire.

Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness paid tribute:

The Prime Minister announced last year that a highway was to be named in honor of Belafonte, who received the Order of Merit, a Jamaican national award, in 2018.

The opposition People's National Party shared:

Former Member of Parliament Peter Phillips shared on Facebook:

Harry Belafonte never ever forgot his Jamaican roots and always paid tribute to the strength of his ancestors as he fought for justice and equality for all people everywhere. His was a life well lived. Daylight has come and he's going to his eternal home. […]

The U.S. Embassy in Jamaica tweeted:

Jamaican popular singer Nadine Sutherland recalled with delight:

She added:

Filmmaker and co-founder of Jamaica's Calabash Literary Festival Justine Henzell recalled her meeting with Belafonte:

Journalist Karen Madden posted a heartfelt tweet:

Jamaican academic and cultural researcher Sonja Stanley shared:

Further afield, a London-based Trinidadian, Jonathan Ali, reminisced on Facebook:

In 2011, the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival screened the documentary Sing Your Song, about Harry Belafonte, and based on his recent memoir, My Song. His daughter, Gina Belafonte, was our guest at the festival, presenting the film at several screenings and receiving a lifetime achievement award from the festival on her elderly father's behalf. One night some of us were returing from Studio Film Club and I asked Gina if she knew when was the last time her father had visited Trinidad. She didn't. She took out her phone and dialled a number.
“Hi, Dad, how are you doing? Tell me something – when was the last time you visited Trinidad?”

And so that night, as we drove up and over the winding road that led into Port-of-Spain, Harry Belafonte, at home in New York, relayed to those of us in the car his memories of Trinidad (his last trip had been sometime in the '70s), his wonderful experiences there, and the people – especially the calypsonians – it had been his privilege to meet and get to know.

Belafonte's encounter with Trinidad and in particular his embrace of its music was nothing short of extraordinary – his album Calypso (1956) was the first to sell a million copies. Yet it was only one facet of a truly extraordinary and unflaggingly dynamic life as a ground-breaking activist and artist that spanned the better part of a century. His legacy is astonishing. He was, to borrow the title of the memoir of his friend Sidney Poitier, who we lost just last year, the measure of a man.

Referring to Belafonte's biography, Sing Your Song, a UK-based Jamaican shared:

A Cuban government official made an interesting observation:

The Jamaican diaspora appeared to feel Belafonte's passing even more deeply. Canada-based Jamaican poet Pamela Mordecai shared:

For many Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals, at home and in the diaspora, it was not so much for his acting and musical career that Belafonte was deeply appreciated. It was for his activism in the field of civil rights and as a dedicated champion of social justice throughout his life. One Jamaican blogger shared sadly:

A man of many layers, Belafonte's passing has put his legacy as an artist and activist once more into the international spotlight, with regional citizens and members of the diaspora in particular experiencing a deep sense of nostalgia for this Caribbean man and global icon.

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