It is impossible to overstate the enormity of the loss. Harry Belafonte has been an icon of global entertainment and social activism for longer than most of us have been alive. His story will be told many times and in many ways in the days to come. It is perhaps most beautifully told in his own words in his 2011 memoir, My Song. At Afropop Worldwide, we were privileged to have a special relationship with Harry in the last quarter century of his life. So here we offer a few personal remembrances.
First, our deepest condolences to Pam and the entire Belafonte family. Harry was a brilliant artist, activist, humanitarian and, we’re honored to say, friend of Afropop. It all started when Alicia Adams of the Kennedy Center invited Sean Barlow to participate in her visionary African Odyssey Festival in 1997. The culminating concert was a Harry Belafonte-MC’d event where he performed and spotlighted members of his amazing band, including Cameroonian bass virtuoso Richard Bona, then Harry’s musical director. In a star-studded lineup, Salif Keita performed solo, and afterwards, Youssou N’Dour wowed a packed audience in the Grand Foyer, dominated by that large sculpture of President Kennedy.
Back in New York, as the years passed, we invited Harry and Pam to dinner and special concerts by artists we thought they would enjoy. Notably, in 2007, the South African maskanda guitarist and singer Shiyani Ngcobo performed a single concert at Carnegie Hall. This was one of the only times this wonderful Zulu music has ever been performed in the U.S. It was a long concert, but Harry was there to the finish, keen to greet the band backstage at the then-new Zankel Auditorium. Maybe the closest thing to maskanda-in-America were concerts by the late maestro Johnny Clegg and his band, including one City Winery concert that Harry also attended.
Harry and Pam turned out to see Cuba’s number-one traditional rumba ensemble, Los Munequitos de Matanzas. He called us afterward to say that seeing Los Munequitos made him feel young again. Harry also attended Bobby McFerrin’s “Bobby Meets Africa” concert at Brooklyn College, curated by Afropop Worldwide. For all he had going in his life, Harry remained an enthusiastic supporter of live music, particularly African diaspora music, into his 90s.
The most special evening we shared with Harry happened in 2008 when he honored us by accepting our invitation to be inducted into the Afropop Hall of Fame at our 20th anniversary gala at Tavern on the Green. Angelique Kidjo was also an honoree that night, and there were performances by the Mandingo Ambassadors and the cast of Fela! on Broadway. Early in the evening, Harry called Sean over to say he had an early flight the next morning to Chicago and could we change the program and let him speak first. Sean, of course, said yes, and expected that Harry would speak for the planned 10 to 15 minutes.
Instead, the man sermonized rapturously about his experiences of Africanness in America for a solid 40 minutes, with not a pin-drop sounding in the room. He spoke of seeing Tarzan movies as a boy, and growing up with that scary scenario as the concept of Africa the entertainment industry and media were feeding to Americans. He moved on to his legendary role as a champion of South African greats Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela in the 1960’s and his work as an ambassador for organizations doing humanitarian work on the continent, including his tireless campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. He wound it all into humbling praise for our work at Afropop. It was an epic, deeply moving discourse that totally upended the gala’s tight timing, but nobody was complaining. What a night!
So again, we thank Harry and all the people that made his life so meaningful and consequential. Here are a few cherished memories of a great man.
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