Remembering Harry Belafonte

Tukufu Zuberi describes meeting the musician-turned-activist, plus how Belafonte used his talents for good and what legacy he leaves behind.

It’s one thing to listen to and admire the words of a famous musician and activist from afar. But when Harry Belafonte came to Penn in 2007, Tukufu Zuberi had the chance to spend a full day with the civil rights advocate. “He was an extraordinary individual in how he held himself,” recalls Zuberi, Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations and a professor in the Departments of Sociology and Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences. “He had a certain dignity that he walked with, that he talked with.”

Belafonte was on campus as part of that year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice, a conversation with Mary Frances Berry moderated by Zuberi. “It was a packed house,” Zuberi says. “People loved Harry Belafonte.”

Harry Belafonte in 1981.
Harry Belafonte speaking for peace and against nuclear weapons in 1981 in Bonn, Germany. (Image: Klaus Rose/AP Images)

In remembrance of Belafonte, who passed away on April 25 at the age of 96, Zuberi reflects on his first impressions after that in-person meeting, plus how Belafonte used his music for good and what legacy he’s leaving behind.

Belafonte was so successful at using his music as a force for change because, Zuberi says, he “really treasured the potential of humanity. He thought about what he could do to make this a better world. He wasn’t just a person trying to make a lot of money, to sing the big songs. He wanted to do those things in the service of humanity. And he did that time and time again. Harry found a way to use his beautiful voice, to use his acting appeal, to use his beauty to make points about those who missed out on the better things of society. He lived a life of courage, of distinction, of speaking truth to power.”

As for Belafonte’s legacy, Zuberi says “an important lesson that I learned from Harry Belafonte and that others should learn from him is that it is not just about having many people listen to your voice. You should have something to say. The substance should precede the idea that you just want people to listen to you. It’s not simply a question of having a million likes or followers. The real question is, do you have something to say?”

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