Harry Belafonte, who died on April 25, has a strong claim to being the first truly transcendent pop superstar. Both a singer and actor, his towering range and captivating stage persona propelled him into the conscience of white audiences in the troubled middle decades of the last century. At a time when attitudes towards blackness were predominantly marked by bigotry and prejudice, Belafonte became a household name around the world. He sought ever newer registers for black livingness, achieving a level of international stardom that showed off the beauty of the spirit in black life during the long era of white supremacy’s chokehold. Belafonte used his fame both openly and subversively, promoting the cause of freedom, creating awareness of black cultural practice in ways that looked beyond North America, and always tirelessly striving to present black life as rich, complex, and worthy of seeing.
Belafonte’s role as part of a talented vanguard of mid-century black auteurs in America cannot be overstressed. He and Sidney Poitier, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and James Baldwin, among others, used their platforms as a radical critique of a society that was never meant to include them, during an era that spanned Jim Crow segregation, McCarthyism and its weird paranoias, civil rights, and the difficult emancipatory back-and-forth decades that followed. It’s intriguing to countenance that the Harry Belafonte who was chased through Mississippi by the Klan after he and Poitier brought financial relief to harassed and stressed civil rights workers in the febrile Freedom Summer of 1964, was still alive half a century later to witness the election of Barack Obama and the inevitable white backlash that brought Donald Trump to office. With his diaspora-inflected voice—one that somehow managed to be velvety and to carry gravitas at the same time—Belafonte gave vibrant audibility to multiple theaters of black struggle for a place in the sun, both through his own work and through the work of those artists whose work he championed and cared for, including Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.
As popular sonic trends began to pivot away from matinee idols toward the grittier sounds of Motown and Stax Records, Belafonte gravitated away from the folk music standards that had been his stock-in-trade, toward an early form of what would later become known as “world music.” In the cooling post-1960s mood, Belafonte refashioned himself as a world ambassador, taking up an interest in famine relief and organizing the definitive charity recording “We Are the World” in the mid-1980s. This period marked a turn away from the world tours that had sustained him, toward a quieter role in public life, although he continued to appear periodically wherever he was called for, including a late role in Spike Lee’s 2018 film Blackkklansman.
The breadth of Belafonte’s creative output, coupled with his ability to make and remake himself with each decade, has conversely meant that his public memory has been oversimplified and subject to a banalizing subsumption into the American popular idiom. It doesn’t help that, like many of his contemporaries, his actual discography has been muddled by many badly cobbled-together compilations drawn from his extensive back catalog. This is a not-uncommon phenomenon where black artists are concerned: most people know little more of Nina Simone’s oeuvre than “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and Belafonte is sentimentalized as the guy who popularized “The Banana Boat Song.” Belafonte’s most famous song epitomizes his complicated relationship with the political: a protest song about odious work conditions, it’s a gleeful call-and-response song if you don’t hear (or choose to ignore) the rebellion in the lyrics.
The gradual shift from Belafonte the musician to Belafonte the archetype has also reduced the legibility of his individual musical efforts in a way that means that the good albums are often hard to uncover. Singular among these is Belafonte’s final studio album, the anti-apartheid LP Paradise in Gazankulu. By the time it was released in 1988, Belafonte’s mainstream peers were trying out big shoulder-padded comebacks, with varying degrees of success. Thankfully, there was no tragic synth-Belafonte to sully his career: by this point, he was well into the older musician’s transition to touring, honing the world music sound that would come to define his late career. But Paradise in Gazankulu was a significant note on which to end a formal recording career that had begun nearly 50 years earlier. As pop albums go, Paradise in Gazankulu has always been overshadowed by Paul Simon’s Graceland, a similarly South African-themed album that draws from the same well, even though both albums do very different things. Graceland is Paul Simon drawing from the South African soundbook to create an album that beyond its form (it could be argued that the form is the thing) has no overt political message. Paradise in Gazankulu is a realist impression of black life, and its concept speaks to the political situation in South Africa at the time in a far more direct manner.
I have a slight bias in writing about these albums. Among many white South Africans of my age, I have encountered a strong sense of nostalgia for Graceland, which often featured in our lives as a soundtrack to high days and holidays. This may well draw from a misconception about the album’s transgressive politics: Graceland was not banned in apartheid South Africa. In fact, as the musicologist Charlie Hamm noted in the period, “the Graceland songs were given substantial airplay on the ‘white’ services of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).” It’s an album whose visibility in the cultural imaginary is sustained by the nostalgia middle-class people who were alive in the 1980s have for the boomer pop their parents listened to. But my family’s road trips were generally soundtracked by Harry Belafonte, and Paradise in Gazankulu particularly, an album that was the ambient noise of my childhood. I knew the words to “Global Carnival” well before I sensed the transgressive dimension of a pop song that imagined Sandinistas, the Irish Republican Army, and the Palestine Liberation Organization partying with Princess Diana. Later, I was moved by the anthemic cry of “Move It,” even if I didn’t get the full significance of being “Homeless in our homelands/Aliens in our own lands.”
Nearly four decades on, it’s remarkable to compare the two albums. While Graceland is a sublimation of black South African influences that sold 16 million copies worldwide, becoming Simon’s most successful studio album, Paradise in Gazankulu, although its politics are more legible, received a more muted response. Hamm himself dismissed Paradise in Gazankulu as a Graceland clone intended to boost a flagging career, while Robert Christgau of the Village Voice called it a “socially conscious malapropism,” skewering the fact that Belafonte, who was persona non grata in South Africa at the time of the album’s recording, had delegated an arranger and a lyricist to capture music and vocals from Brenda Fassie, the Soul Brothers, and the Makgona Tsohle Band. These are rather uncharitable criticisms, given that Belafonte, unlike Simon, had made his stance clear, and was hardly going to violate the cultural boycott by coming to South Africa while the prohibition was in place. And while Paradise in Gazankulu certainly has its missteps (the love-across-the-color-bar duet “Skin to Skin” with Jennifer Warnes sits awkwardly among the more heated political songs), the album is still an enduringly powerful castigation of apartheid and its destructive workings on black lives.
It pays to recall that 1988 was a sanguinary year for South Africa. It was a year in which realpolitik was expressing itself violently throughout South African political life: grenades and limpet mines were going off on a near-daily basis. A gunman murdered Dulcie September in Paris in March of that year, and nine days later, someone tried to dispatch Albie Sachs using a car bomb in Mozambique. In November of the same year, Barend Strydom, a white man, would go on a hate-filled gun rampage that left eight black people dead. Time tends to palimpsest on itself, and while 1988 might seem incredibly close to the unbanning of the ANC, the release of Nelson Mandela, and the other events of 1990 that saw the eventual dismantling of apartheid in favor of the new age of globalization, it’s important to remember how chasmic the gulf was between those moments in time.
Listening to Paradise in Gazankulu today, the album sounds like a time capsule: a strong Afro-pop album with a distinct temporal architecture underpinning it. In ten songs, the longest running to four and a half minutes, it contextualizes its message clearly, mixing direct confrontation and inward reflection. The album seems like a fitting end to a decade that saw protest pop (from Artists United Against Apartheid, Eddy Grant, Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Cliff, Letta Mbulu, and others) proliferate on the charts. Like Graceland, Belafonte’s album draws its South African musical sources into a richly creative tapestry of sound. But Belafonte’s album retains more of the grain of the country from which its samples draw. The title track, a propulsive Mbaqanga number that interpolates Obed Ngobeni and the Kurhula Sisters’ “Ku Hluvukile Eka Zete (in Xitsonga, meaning “There is progress at ZZ2,” a reference to the commercial farms based in South Africa’s Limpopo province), is a mockery of the South African homeland system and its mendacious promise of black prosperity, driven home by an energetic mesh of bass guitar and wind instruments.
The finest moments in this album are the ones that capture the rhythm and tempo of township life. The opening of the power-pop duet with Brenda Fassie, “Monday to Monday,” frames a tearful goodbye between a migrant worker and his wife:
It was a cloudy morning in Ulundi
I could see the rain in your eye
I was looking for a word to somehow make it right
But the only word I found was goodbye.
It’s a belter of a pop track with an infectious chorus that captures the power of Brenda Fassie’s young vocals. Elsewhere, in “Kwela” (Listen to The Man), a beguilingly cheerful penny-whistle ditty, Belafonte ventriloquizes the apartheid police who rush up and cart people off to prison. The tune may be upbeat, but the message is sinister:
Come on boy, jump inside
Come on, boy, we gonna take you for a ride
It’s an excursion, where you don’t have to pay
At the end of the line you’ll find a place to stay.
The song has a nostalgic riff and a theme that sounds like bitter laughter, evoking the excitement and danger of urban Black lifeworlds criminalized by the apartheid regime. At each turn, Belafonte draws something out of the music with vocals that drop to raspy lows or soar up the scale defiantly. This is shown to full effect in the album’s closer, “Move It,” whose last lines are “Our patience and our sanity/has now turned into rage/the rage of souls with nothing left to lose.”
If I had to pick my favorite song, I’d say that the elegiac “Capetown” feels like a high-water mark on the album. Anchored by an earworm of a saxophone hook, the song is exceptional in the way it contrasts the picturesque beauties of the city (“Tidy whitewashed houses/Sprays of wildflowers/The heart and soul of gentility/The vineyards, and the orchards/Warm white sandy beaches/Old and graceful luxury”) with the violent erasures of the forced removals that enable this cleansed aesthetic (“CapeTown, there’s a hole in the heart of you/ A hole where District Six used to be”). It’s a beautifully sad ballad that concludes with Belafonte’s plea, “Capetown, it’s a bitter fruit you harvest.” The song still resonates as an arrow-sharp depiction of the appalling social contrasts that underpin the Western Cape’s metropoles. You could overlay the images he holds up to modern-day Cape Town, and the picture would still fit.
Ultimately, the exuberant realignment of the world at the end of the 1980s swept away many seemingly concrete fixities and ushered in a new age where the artificial delineations of good and evil fell away in favor of new and more visible entanglements. The kind of political album that Paradise in Gazankulu exemplified was no longer a form that scanned with the same power it had done a few years before. With the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994, the album joined an archive of things that seemed to have outlived their purpose, works whose confrontational nature seemed outmoded and passe in the celebratory afterglow of the hard-fought victory over apartheid.
It’s hard to imagine that, as the chief actors in the local and international cultural struggle against apartheid die off, works like Paradise in Gazankulu won’t pass into oblivion as a footnote in Belafonte’s long and excellent public career. That would be a shame. While there is much to mourn about Belafonte’s passing, even coming as it did in the winter of a life that defied expectation and obstacles to achieve an exceptional level of greatness, I hope that there will always be a place for this bold statement album about South Africa and its people.