Born March 1, 1927 in poverty-stricken Harlem to first-generation Jamaican immigrants, Belafonte emigrated with his mother back to Jamaica at eight years old, and returned to New York at age thirteen. Midway through high school, he dropped out and enlisted in the Navy. Upon discharge, the young man studied and performed at the Actors Studio (alongside such legends as Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando), Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research, and The American Negro Theater. A singing role in a theatrical piece led to a string of cabaret engagements, and before long, Belafonte’s success enabled him to secure funding to open his own nightclub. His recording career officially began at the age of 22, in 1949, when he presented himself as a pop singer along the lines of Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra, but in time he found a more unique niche by delving headfirst into the Library of Congress’s archive of folk song recordings and studying West Indian music. What emerged was a highly unique (and unprecedented) blend of pop, jazz and traditional Caribbean rhythms.
Harry Belafonte, a supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement, used his celebrity as a beloved entertainer to garner funding for the movement. In her autobiography, Coretta Scott King said of Belafonte, “whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open” (King, 144-145).