Harry Belafonte, the Pioneering Artist-Activist
We take it for granted that entertainers can—and probably should—advocate for the causes they believe in, political and otherwise. That wasn’t always the case: at one time, entertainers were supposed to entertain, and little else. Harry Belafonte, who died on April 25th at the age of ninety-six, pioneered the artist-activist approach. One of the most celebrated singers of his era, he had a string of huge hits—“The Banana Boat Song,” “Mama Look a Boo Boo,” “Jamaica Farewell”—while appearing as the rare Black leading man in the movies. At the same time, Belafonte used his platform to influence public opinion. He was a key figure in the civil-rights movement, a confidant of Martin Luther King’s; a generation later, he worked with Nelson Mandela to help bring down apartheid in South Africa. Belafonte joined The New Yorker Radio Hour in 2016, when the staff writer Jelani Cobb visited him at his office in Manhattan.
This segment originally aired September 30, 2016.