Harry Belafonte’s ‘rebellious heart’
A poignant irony came wrapped in the news that Harry Belafonte had died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at age 96. Surely, one easily imagines, the iconic singer, actor and activist would take issue with that diagnosis.
Although his body had failed after almost a century of history-making activism and award-winning artistic achievements, his spirit never did.
It was a life rich with achievements and honors.
The “King of Calypso,” as Harold George Belafonte Jr., was called after his runaway 1956 hit “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” would go on to win three Grammy Awards, an Emmy and a Tony, as well as starring roles in such classic films as “Carmen Jones.”
But he persistently insisted that “I was an activist long before I became an artist.”
His fame opened doors to more activism. He befriended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. He befriended Nelson Mandela and led a campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
He mobilized support for the fight against HIV/AIDS and came up with the idea for recording the hit 1985 recording “We Are the World,” which assembled a constellation of pop and rock stars, including Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, to raise money for famine relief in Africa.
Yet the former King of Calypso’s unvarnished candor ruffled feathers even among his allies. He sparked an angry backlash, for example, when he called President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” for invading Iraq.
But he also criticized Barack Obama so much during the then-senator’s first presidential run that Obama asked him to “cut me some slack.” Belafonte memorably replied, according to The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, “What makes you think that’s not what I’ve been doing?”
When asked in recent years what he was still looking for, he replied, “What I’ve always been looking for: Where resides the rebel heart?"
“Without the rebellious heart, without people who understand that there’s no sacrifice we can make that is too great to retrieve that which we’ve lost,” he said with poetic grace in 2017. “We will forever be distracted with possessions and trinkets and title.”
Belafonte’s rebellious heart is at rest now. But his musical genius continues to be remembered.
So should his relentless pursuit of a better world.