When activist, humanitarian, philanthropist, producer, and singer Harry Belafonte died on April 25, at the age of 96, the drums of the ancestors could be heard around the world. He was a warrior for social justice, and for the empowerment of Black people throughout the African diaspora. Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” comes to mind; when you speak of rivers, speak of Harry Belafonte.
Belafonte in his travels touched many hearts, many souls, many minds. Here are a few of those who were honored to be called his friends, students, and associates.
Percussionist Chief Baba Neil Clarke had the pleasure of working in Belafonte’s band for 15 years (1979-1993). “It was Chief Bey, my African percussion instructor, who originally connected me with Belafonte’s band. Soon after my audition we went on a European tour. While in Germany, Harry took us to the Dachau Concentration camp. That visit was very impactful, it gave me a better understanding of Harry and his commitment to the struggle. He wasn’t only about civil rights, he was about human rights. His fight was against man’s inhumanity to man. His commitment was dedicated to making this world a better place and the empowerment of black people.
When we were in Las Vegas, Harry took me to all the hotels who refused him rooms even though he was performing there. He had been at the forefront of dismantling the barriers of segregation and he made sure all the band members enjoyed the fruits of our elders’ fight. He made sure we always stayed in five-star hotels. Harry’s musicians and singers were multicultural with textures of authentic sounds from Jamaica, Haiti, Brazil, and Cuba.
He was like a father to me, from discussing music, to giving me business advice and just talking about life. We would spend hours talking about his experiences with Paul Robeson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and discussions about Toussaint Louverture. Harry and Randy Weston, with whom I worked for 30 years until his transition, were both masters of the music, intent on escalating the artform and using their platform to advocate for social justice.”
Voza Rivers, the executive producer and founding member of the New Heritage Theatre Group, had the pleasure of working with Belafonte on a variety of projects.
“My relationship with Harry Belafonte was filled with trust, admiration, integrity, humility, and incomparable achievements. Harry’s outstanding contributions to the civil rights initiatives are well documented. Harry represents the embodiment of what is good, fine righteous and admirable.
As I reflect back to 1985 when Harry visited New Heritage Theatre Group in Harlem, two years earlier  I had assumed leadership upon the death of the theatre’s founder Roger Furman, who along with Harry, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Gertrude Jeannette, Rosetta LeNoire, and Alice Childress, were members of the famed American Negro Theatre, located in the basement of the 135th Street Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).
Harry attended the premiere production of New Heritage’s South African play “Asinamali!” The play featured five South African actors portraying Black prisoners, whose activism was a crime under the country’s apartheid regime. Harry was so impressed with our production, he joined in partnership with Miriam Makeba, Paul Simon, and Hamilton Fish among others in producing “Asinimal!” On Broadway. Harry’s vision for supporting New Heritage was a welcome affirmation that we were following in the footsteps of his beloved American Negro Theatre of the 1940s.
Harry was also impressed with New Heritage’s Youth Theatre, Impact Repertory Theatre, co-founded by Jamal and Joyce Joseph, Arlen Courtney Bennett, Raymond Johnson and myself. During visits to our workshops, Harry stressed combining artistic endeavors with a commitment to public service. On several occasions, he commissioned Impact to create new works. I will miss Harry Belafonte, a man fully committed to social justice and human rights.”
Sipho Kunene was the drummer for Belafonte for six years, from 1987-1992. “I had many memorable experiences with Harry Belafonte. The one that electrifies me the most, is our concert for the “Children On The Frontline Festival” in Harare, Zimbabwe in Southern Africa in 1988. It wasn’t the fact that it was a brand new 80,000 seat stadium, or that our segment was filmed for PBS. It was that I, South African born, USA raised from 5 years old, the son of parents exiled to the United States in the 60’s, was going “home” to play music in the backyard of my home country, South Africa. And we were doing a lot of South African music with Harry, so all those things combined had me extremely excited.
What made this an indelible experience for me was that the way we always started the show was, the band and singers would get into position first, then Jose Neto, our guitarist would jump into the intro lick of our opener. Then our music director, Richard Cummings, would cue the rest of the band and I’d kick us off. But this time after we were in place and all set, out strolled Bishop Desmond Tutu! I was on stage mere feet away from this warrior for peace, fighter for the civil rights of my people, my cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunties. After he addressed the crowd, Neto set us up, Richard cued the band and off we went.
That is a personal experience that I found hard to explain or describe to my bandmates. I didn’t even try. So I put that memory in my box of “magic moments” and keep it close to me. Rest in peace Mr. B. I love you! I miss you! Amandla!!”
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Drummer Will Calhoun was one of the youngest to join Belafonte’s band as a recent graduate of The Berklee College of Music (in 1986). “Chief Baba Neil Clarke recommended me to Harry, who hired me after my nervous audition. I started working with Living Colour shortly after being hired. I was just out of school and didn’t want to be the one making mistakes but all the band members were helpful.
On a flight to a Living Colour gig, Harry happened to be on the same plane. We discussed my association with Living Colour and I gave him a tape. After hearing the tape, he said to me, ‘your band is extraordinary, you must do this project!’ After that I never had any thoughts about the band and our success because of what Harry told me. He said, ‘You guys are Black, focused and from New York don’t ever forget that.’
Years later, he continued to check on me and called after both my Grammy wins. He was talking about the AMC, Mandela, and Paul Robeson. Talking with him was like conversing with a hip uncle except I was looking directly at Harry Belafonte! His conversations prepared me for everything that was ahead of me, both positive and negative. He helped many musicians from other countries get U.S. citizenship. For his entire life, he made this world a much better place, especially for people of color. Working with Harry was a remarkable experience for me; nothing will ever come close.”
Pianist Richard Cummings was Belafonte’s music director (1978-1995). “Percussionist Steve Thornton recommended me for the music position with Harry’s organization. At the time Harry was interested in recreating and dressing up his repertoire with new feeling and the exuberance of the Caribbean experience. That was the best job on earth for me, at 21 years old. He also had choral conductors, who worked with the ensemble’s vocalists. Harry didn’t attend many rehearsals but left it up to us to work things out for his final approval. Everyone in the band had input. It was a unique workshop with all of us hashing it out together.
Traveling on the tour bus was the most fun, we were on the road six months out of the year mostly in Europe and Canada. That comradery of going around the world was like a large family traveling together. I must have worked with over 100 musicians during my tenure. The two greatest universities for Black music in the latter half of the 20th century were Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers and Harry Belafonte’s organization. Harry was unwavering in his dedication to theater and the creation of what we disseminated to the public. I was fortunate to have a 45-year relationship with Harry, he even became friends with my father. I organized the Harry Belafonte Alumni Group Musical Historical Society whose purpose is to continue Harry’s cultural and musical legacy.”