New Book–Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical

Repeating Islands


Mike Wold reviews Judith E. Smith’s Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical for

One singer you won’t likely hear on a ’50s oldies station is Harry Belafonte, yet he was one of the most popular singers of that decade. He made a name for himself in the emerging “folk” music genre, with five gold albums between 1955 and 1963. For a time, he was outselling Elvis Presley. His repertoire anticipated “world music;” he incorporated musical traditions from the Caribbean, Africa, Ireland and the U.S. in his singing. By the early 1960s, his brand of smooth traditional folk was overtaken in popularity by grittier singer-songwriter acoustic music, rock-and-roll and soul.

Belafonte was a “breakthrough” African-American artist at a time when black performers usually needed special permission to play for white audiences, especially in the South. Even in New York City, racially mixed audiences were discouraged by the authorities. Belafonte wasn’t content…

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