By Dr. Monty Alexander
CARIBPR WIRE, Tues. May 23, 2023: On April 25, 2023, the world bid farewell to Harry Belafonte, a true icon of music, cinema, and activism. I not only mourn the loss of an extraordinary individual, but also a dear friend.
Growing up in Jamaica, my home, Harry played a significant role in my life. In 1956, his album “Jump Up Calypso” emerged, validating the heritage music of Jamaica. The delightful songs sung by Harry, such as “Banana Boat” and “Island in the Sun,” brought smiles to everyone’s faces.
Long before the rise of Bob Marley and the popularization of reggae, Harry was already putting Jamaica on the map with Calypso, or as we called it then, mento. He brought Caribbean rhythms and influences to the forefront of popular music, paving the way for generations of artists who followed in his footsteps.
Harry possessed both striking looks and a compelling voice. When he appeared in movies, his talent as an actor shone brilliantly. I recall watching him in the 1959 film “The World, The Flesh and The Devil,” and I distinctly remember my mother having a crush on him. In fact, Harry Belafonte was adored by many ladies of that era.
As I began my own journey in music, Harry became one of my influential figures. His attitude, grace, integrity, and warmth left a lasting impact on me. Our friendship flourished when I moved to the United States, as we shared a common Jamaican heritage. Despite being an American born in Harlem, his parents hailed from Jamaica, and he even attended high school there for a few years.
Harry always treated me with great kindness. Whenever he saw me, he would joyfully exclaim, “cousin!” Our bond grew stronger over time.
I also cherish the memory of Harry’s contributions to the civil rights movement in America. He leveraged his celebrity status and rallied his Hollywood friends, including Paul Newman, Tony Bennett, and his dear companion from The Bahamas, Sidney Poitier, to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in raising awareness for the cause before marching in Selma.
Harry’s activism extended beyond the borders of the United States. He utilized his fame and influence to shed light on human rights abuses in South Africa and other parts of the world. He embraced his platform as a performer to champion the issues closest to his heart, inspiring countless others to do the same. Harry Belafonte was not only an extraordinary entertainer but also an unwavering advocate for social justice and civil rights.
In recent years, I had the privilege of spending time with him on several occasions. Our last meeting occurred on December 16th, 2021, when Harry received the distinguished title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from the President of the Republic of France. I was honored to be among the select few non-family members present at the private ceremony held in his New York City home. Though time had passed, and Harry seemed quieter than usual, we shared a wonderful moment, exchanging smiles and embraces. During that special event, Mrs. Belafonte, Pamela Frank, took this lovely picture that I share with great honor and pride.
Losing him fills me with deep sadness. Harry, I will miss you and the tremendous difference you made as an activist for people of color and the less fortunate.
Harry’s legacy serves as a powerful reminder of the transformative power of music. His music brought joy and inspiration to millions around the world, while his activism fostered real and lasting change.
As we remember Harry, let us draw inspiration from his example and continue to utilize music and art as vehicles for promoting social justice and equality for all.
In closing, I would like to share a quote from Harry Belafonte that has always resonated with me: “The artist is the radical voice of society.” Let us all strive to be that radical voice, and to use our talents and platforms to make the world a better place.
Au Revoir Harry. God Bless, and Happy Journey Home.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Monty Alexander, C.D, is a Grammy-nominated, award-winning Jamaican-born, world renown musician who was recently awarded the Order of Jamaica (OJ) for sterling contribution to the promotion of Jamaican music and the Jazz genre interpretations globally. Hear his version of Harry Belafonte’s ‘Island In The Sun’ at youtube.com/watch?v=XSf96gDBMco
GET PHOTO FOR USE WITH THIS ARTICLE HERE
CAPTION: Dr. Monty Alexander, C.D., (l), with Harry Belafonte at his home in Manhattan, NY, in 2021. (Pamela Frank image)