Harry Belafonte, byname of Harold George Belafonte, Jr., (born March 1, 1927, New York City, New York, U.S.), American singer, actor, producer, and activist who was a key figure in the folk music scene of the 1950s, especially known for popularizing the Caribbean folk songs known as calypsos. He was also involved in various social causes, notably the civil rights movement.
Belafonte was born in Harlem to emigrants from the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Jamaica. When his mother returned to Jamaica in 1935, he joined her, living there until 1940. He left high school to serve in the U.S. Navy in the mid-1940s. After returning to New York City, Belafonte studied drama at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop, where a singing role led to nightclub engagements and a recording contract as a pop singer.
In 1953 Belafonte made his film debut in Bright Road, playing a school principal. The following year he was the male lead (but did not sing) in the musical Carmen Jones; his costar was Dorothy Dandridge. The film was a huge success, and it led to a starring role in the film Island in the Sun(1957), which also featured Dandridge. He produced the film Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), in which he starred. He also starred in the TV special Tonight with Belafonte (1959), a revue of African American music; Belafonte won an Emmy Award for his work on the show.
In 1950 Belafonte became a folk singer, learning songs at the Library of Congress’s American folk song archives. He sang Caribbean folk songs as well, in nightclubs and theatres; his handsome appearance added to his appeal as a frequent performer on television variety programs. With hit recordings such as “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell,” he initiated a fad for calypso music and became known as the King of Calypso. In the mid-1950s his Harry Belafonteand Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites were the first of his series of hit folk song albums. During this time he made his Broadway debut, appearing in the musical John Murray Anderson’s Almanac (1953–54); for his performance, he won a Tony Award for supporting actor. Later in the decade he starred on the stage in 3 for Tonight and Belafonte at the Palace.