Harry Belafonte recently died at the age of 96. The singer/actor passed away at his Manhattan home on Tuesday due to congestive heart failure.
Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem, New York, to Caribbean-born parents, Belafonte became a huge star in the 1950s. He helped popularise calypso music, even though he later performed in many other genres, such as folk, blues, and American standards.
The musician was perhaps best known for songs including “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” “Jump in the Line,” and “Jamaica Farewell,” while his breakthrough 1956 album Calypso is believed to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies.
In addition to his music career, Belafonte also became an actor, appearing in films such as “Carmen Jones,” “Island in the Sun,” “Odds Against Tomorrow,” and 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” – which marked his final role. The barrier-breaking legend was also a prominent civil rights activist and a friend and supporter of Martin Luther King Jr.
Belafonte received many honors over the course of his career, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, and the National Medal of Arts in 1994. He was presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2014 in recognition of his civil rights activism.
The icon was married to Marguerite Byrd between 1948 and 1957, Julie Robinson from 1957 to 2004, and Pamela Frank from 2008. Belafonte is survived by his wife, Pamela, four children, two stepchildren, and eight grandchildren.
Throughout his long and storied career, Harry Belafonte has left an indelible mark on hip-hop culture. From his involvement in the groundbreaking film “Beat Street” to his collaborations and connections with influential rappers, Belafonte’s influence can be seen across the genre.
“Beat Street” and the Hip-Hop Connection
One of Harry Belafonte’s most significant contributions to Hip-Hop culture is his role in the 1984 film “Beat Street.”
As a producer, Belafonte was instrumental in bringing this groundbreaking movie to life. “Beat Street” was one of the first films to depict the burgeoning Hip-Hop culture, showcasing the creativity of the breakdancing, DJing, and graffiti art scenes in New York City.
This movie helped popularize Hip-Hop culture and inspired a new generation of artists to express themselves through this emerging art form.
Belafonte even had a role in bringing one of the most memorable parts of the movie together – the epic collaboration between three of Hip-Hop’s dopest and earliest female rappers – MC Sha Rock, Debbie D., and Lisa Lee.
“There was an audition that was happening downtown at the Roxy for the movie Beat Street that was gonna be produced by Harry Belafonte. I said to him that day when he was at auditions, ‘We are the three best female MCs out here in New York City. We need to be a part of the movie. People know us,’ Sha Rock told NPR during an interview in March of 2023.
Sha Rock explained that since she was signed to Sugar Hill, she had to get Sylvia Robinson’s permission. Robinson signed off, stipulating that Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five had to write the theme song for “Beat Street.”
“When we went down to Harry Belafonte’s office, he said, ‘I have somebody in here that’s got a song. I want y’all to do this song. It’s called ‘Us Girls Can Boogie, Too.’ And that’s how we became the Us Girls. He had us come in, do the song and a little routine to it, and then we just wrote our own rhymes to the song,” MC Sha Rock revealed.
AllHipHop’s own Chuck Creekmur once interviewed Mr. B for the site, but unfortunately that footage has been lost. They shared a joke when this image was snapped.
Sampling Belafonte’s Music
Belafonte’s influence on Hip-Hop and rap music doesn’t stop at the movies. Various artists have sampled his music for years, paying homage to his unique sound and style, further illustrating his influence on the genre. Here are some famous rap artists who have utilized samples from his work in their music:
Pitbull, T-Pain, and Sean Paul sampled “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)” in their song “Shake Senora.”
Doja Cat sampled “My Angel (Malaika)” in her song “Won’t Bite” featuring Smino.
Lil Wayne sampled “Banana Boat (Day-O)” in his track “6 Foot 7 Foot.’
A Confrontation with Jay-Z In 2012
One of the most publicized encounters between Harry Belafonte and a Hip-Hop artist was his 2012 dispute with Jay-Z.
“I made the observation that the highly powerful voice that our community has – Black America has – there is so much celebrity power that it was sad to see that the collective of the celebrity power had not been applied to bring consciousness to the inequities that we face.”
This comment sparked a feud between the two artists, with Jay-Z responding in his song “Nickels and Dimes” from the album “Magna Carta Holy Grail.”
Jay-Z also expressed his grievances in an interview with his Life + Times website.
“I’m offended by that because, first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. I felt Belafonte he just went about it wrong. Like the way he did it in the media, and then he bigged up Bruce Springsteen or somebody. And it was like, ‘whoa,’ you just sent the wrong message all the way around,” Jay-Z said.
Though the confrontation was initially contentious, it opened up a dialogue about the role of artists in activism. Ultimately, it positively affected Jay-Z’s approach to social issues.
In recent years, Jay-Z has become more involved in philanthropy and activism, including producing documentaries on social justice and launching initiatives to improve the criminal justice system.
2015: Selma’s 50th Anniversary
In 2015, Belafonte worked with rappers like Rick Ross, Flavor Flav, Doug E. Fresh, and even Vanilla Ice during festivities to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the march on Selma. Legends like Bill Withers and Cicely Tyson also participated and demonstrated Belafonte’s ongoing connection with Hip-Hop artists and his commitment to social justice.
2016: Common Honored Belafonte’s Advocacy Work
In November 2016, Harry Belafonte linked with Common when he was honored with the AIDS Health Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his charitable and advocacy work worldwide. The award was presented during the “Keep The Promise” concert series, which aimed to bring attention to World Aids Day. Patti Labelle also performed at the event in Los Angeles hosted by Rosie Perez.
2017: The Gathering for Justice
In December 2017, The Gathering for Justice, a charity founded by Harry Belafonte, received a donation of over $800,000 from the popular morning show “The Breakfast Club.” The charity sponsors movements such as The Women’s March, Justice League NYC, and Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp. Belafonte attended the event, along with co-founder Carmen Perez and rapper/activist Mysonne.
Mentorship and Collaboration with Rappers
As we’ve mentioned, Harry Belafonte played an essential role as a mentor to some prominent names in the Hip-Hop and rap industry, such as Danny Glover, known by his stage name Childish Gambino.
Harry Belafonte has also worked directly with Hip-Hop and rap artists. In 2012, he collaborated with rapper and producer Swizz Beatz for the “Kings and Queens Collection” project to raise funds for the “Keep a Child Alive” foundation.
The initiative raised awareness and supported children and families affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa and India.
However, his guidance and influence extend to other artists as well. For instance, Belafonte has strongly supported rapper and activist Talib Kweli, praising him for his commitment to social justice and conscious lyricism.
Belafonte has mentored activist rap artists like Tef Poe from St. Louis and Jasiri X from Pittsburgh. Tef Poe praised Belafonte.
“He is committed to his people and has showed up many times when no one else was bold enough to defend us. Through legacy, we are able to view the power of his power moves and mistakes and utilize them both to take the movement to the next level,” Tef Poe said.
Jasiri X collaborated with Belafonte’s Sankofa Organization to produce the song “Don’t Let Them Get Away With Murder,” featuring Tef Poe, Hakim of Channel Live, Tory Russell, and others committed to change. The music video was directed by Susanne Rostock.
2022: Celebrating Belafonte’s 95th Birthday and Social Justice Work
In March 2022, artists and activists such as Q-Tip, Doug E. Fresh, John Legend, Danny Glover, and Reverend Al Sharpton gathered to celebrate Belafonte’s 95th birthday during the inaugural Harry Belafonte Social Justice Awards, dubbed “HB95.”
The event recognized Belafonte’s work as a political activist championing civil rights with musical performances, video tributes, and testimonials by politicians, racial justice leaders, elected officials, musicians, and others. A portion of the proceeds from the event benefited Sankofa.org, which also celebrated its 10th Anniversary during the star-studded gathering.
Harry Belafonte was an inspiration and guiding light for many artists throughout his life. His unwavering dedication to social justice and his support for the Hip-Hop community left an indelible mark on the genre and the lives of those he has touched.