Singer, Activist Harry Belafonte to Speak on 'Arts in America'

Hollywood legend Harry Belafonte — an award-winning singer, actor, producer and humanitarian — is coming to campus this month to discuss “The Importance of the Arts in America.”

Belafonte comes to UNC as the Frey Foundation Distinguished Visiting Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The free public lecture, presented by the college and Carolina Performing Arts, is planned for Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Hall. Free tickets are required and are available now at the hall box office on Cameron Avenue, or by calling (919) 843-3333. Limited parking will be available in campus lots along Cameron Avenue and in town pay lots on Rosemary Street.

Belafonte was a high school dropout and World War II veteran working as a janitor’s assistant in the late 1940s when he received two free tickets to the American Negro Theater (A.N.T.) in New York. Born in Harlem, he had spent his childhood in Jamaica. What he found at A.N.T. — an all-black company engaged in serious social drama — changed the course of his life.

“There was a force larger than life itself, and I had to become a part of it,” he recalled.

Soon Belafonte was mentored by singer and actor Paul Robeson. He took acting classes with future stars Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. To pay for his studies, Belafonte sang in clubs; his opening performance at New York’s Royal Roost was backed by the late jazz masters Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max Roach.

Belafonte won a Tony Award for his first Broadway role, in the 1953-54 musical John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. A few months later, he signed a recording contract with RCA. His third album, Calypso, in 1956,included his now-famous The Banana Boat Song (Day-O). It was the first album to sell 1 million copies. His fourth album sold another million.

Belafonte became the first black TV producer, winning an Emmy Award in 1959 for his musical epic, Tonight with Belafonte. The award marked another first for a black artist.

In a nation still deeply divided by race, Belafonte became a major star. During a career spanning four decades, he recorded 40 albums and appeared in 28 films and more than a dozen television shows.

Belafonte made headlines for his human rights activism. He became close friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, and he raised funds globally for the civil rights movement and the fight against South African apartheid. He also was a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

Belafonte was honored for lifetime achievement in 1989 by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He won a National Medal of Arts in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

The Frey Foundation Professorship was established in 1989 to bring to campus distinguished leaders from a variety of fields, including government, public policy and the arts. The late Edward J. and Frances Frey of Grand Rapids, Mich., established the foundation in 1974. Their son, David Gardner Frey ’64, chairs the foundation.

The Belafonte lecture is co-sponsored by the departments of communication studies, dramatic art and music.

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