For Harry Belafonte, there is no separation between art and political beliefs
'I had a choice... to use my anger and be destructive or I could use it and and try to be constructive'
With his 1956 album Calypso, Harry Belafonte became the first single artist to get a million-selling LP. His decades-spanning career has proven him to be not only a mega-successful superstar entertainer but an activist and champion of human rights.
With his blend of Jamaican and American folk music, he created his own genre of music, says his daughter Gina Belafonte. "No one has been able to replicate that kind of unique sound and look and style and storytelling. "
For Harry Belafonte, there was no separation between art and political beliefs even though many people did not agree with that approach. "I think that I would rather pursue my beliefs and stand by them than have a successful career if I must make the choice," Belafonte told the CBC on their 1961 special, Close-up on Belafonte
As Judith Smith, the author of Becoming Belafonte, explains, Belafonte rose to fame at the same time as the civil rights movement was growing in the United States. And he has always used his music and fame to fight for what he believed in.
Belafonte was no stranger to the CBC or Canada during this time. His daughter Gina says that for her father, Canada had people "who aligned with his message." She recalls that "[O]n CBC he was able to really bring forward the issues of the civil rights movement and what we were going through, share those stories and speak directly to the Canadian people unapologetically."
This was certainly the case in 1974, when Belafonte showcased exiled South African musicians on a CBC special called Belafonte Canada. He took a leading role in boycotting South Africa's apartheid regime, encouraged other artists to do the same and used his platform on CBC to share his message with Canadians watching at home.
And he told CBC's The Journal in 1985: "I didn't turn into something other than what I was conditioned to be. I had a choice to use my power and to use my anger to be destructive or I could use it to try to be constructive and I I found that the constructive aspect of my commitments have been by far the most rewarding and the far and by far the most meaningful."
As South African artist Lorraine Klassen puts it, Harry Belafonte understood that he could use his music to make a point about injustice, and he was way ahead of his time.