A Legacy of Singing, Generations of Giving Harry Belafonte brought the music of Jamaica’s streets and fields to America—and with it an awareness-raising message about poverty and inequality. He’s passed on a legacy of work on American civil rights and international relief to his daughter and granddaughter. Features
Features  |   November 01, 2014
A Legacy of Singing, Generations of Giving
Author Notes
  • Matthew Cutter is a writer/editor of The ASHA Leader.
    Matthew Cutter is a writer/editor of The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
ASHA News & Member Stories / International & Global / Speech, Voice & Prosody / Features
Features   |   November 01, 2014
A Legacy of Singing, Generations of Giving
The ASHA Leader, November 2014, Vol. 19, online only. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR4.19112014.np
The ASHA Leader, November 2014, Vol. 19, online only. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR4.19112014.np
Caption for above image: Harry Belafonte with Eleanor Roosevelt in Brussels, 1958.
In 1964, Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer accompanied her father, Harry Belafonte, to the African continent—specifically the nation of Guinea—to assemble and produce the newly independent country’s ballet troupe, Ballet National Djoliba. She was 15.
“I took long walks with Dad, just the two of us,” Adrienne says. “He and I were walking along a trail together and there was a little stream, some rocks, and he and I started to cross. There was an older man coming in the other direction. And so we ended up in the middle of this little stream together, and the guy said something to dad in an indigenous language.
“Dad said something back, and they nodded at each other and then the guy goes on. I was really impressed! I said to Dad, ‘So what were you guys talking about?’ And Dad goes, ‘I don’t have a clue, I only speak English.’” With only a moment’s interaction, Belafonte showed his daughter how communication can transcend speech or language—just as he’d done for years with his music—and taught the next generation an indelible lesson. Says Adrienne, “I was in total awe of this person who communicates with people even though he doesn’t speak their language.”
At this year’s ASHA convention in Orlando, Florida, three generations of Belafontes are set to speak on stage together for the first time, underscoring the event’s theme—“Science. Learning. Practice. Generations of Discovery.” Harry Belafonte, Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer and Adrienne’s daughter, Rachel Blue Biesemeyer, will talk about their social activism, and how they’ve passed it along through the generations.
Just as communication can be wordless, so can the transmission of ideas and ideals from father to daughter to granddaughter. In the Belafonte family, social activism was rarely mandated or consciously taught—unless by example.
Adrienne characterizes it as “that energy, that kinetic-ness. You know, whether there was a particular word spoken—not necessary. It was the energy itself that was given and transmitted, and the importance of it.”
Rachel adds, “My parents are both very active in the political realm and also my local community. It was always something that was shown to me, not just by my mother, but by my father, too.” She took part in Hands Across America, the 1986 charity event in which 6.5 million people formed a chain across the United States, and remembers her grandfather’s central role in organizing and recording the 1985 hit single “We Are the World.” “I know Michael Jackson gets a lot of the credit for it,” she says, “but I also know from the other side that my grandfather was a huge part of it.”
Indeed, Harry Belafonte was also a pivotal figure in the American civil rights movement long before Rachel’s birth, as friend and confidante to Martin Luther King Jr. He calls his relationship with King “a gift beyond measure. [He] was a remarkable human being, and for events in my own life to have given him reason to even be aware of my existence—let alone focus on me as someone who could be a part of his movement—was really quite an anointing.” He adds, “Between him and Eleanor Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela, and a host of other people, I think that my activism attracted them. They became aware of the fact that as a globally popular voice artistically, people also had a great willingness to listen to me on social subjects and social themes.”
Music has been a part of Belafonte’s life for as long as he can remember. He received no formal training until his later, theater days—but he didn’t need it. Belafonte spent part of his childhood in Jamaica, where people sang every day. “It was one of the supreme events for getting away from the drudgery of poverty,” he says. “In song, people did everything. They worked in the fields singing, the street criers would get out and sell their wares in the street singing out the songs advertising their goods. And we had a young man who went around the villages … singing songs at events from which they made their living. It was an everyday part of life.
“When I came back to America in 1939,” he continues, “I got very caught up with the Apollo Theater and listening to Duke Ellington, Lucky Millinder and Ella Fitzgerald—all the great artists of the day. So music was always there. I was in love with it.” Although vocal strain, laryngitis and removal of a vocal cord nodule forced him to stop performing in 2004, music allowed Belafonte to forge closer connections with his family.
Rachel was sometimes able to travel with him on tour. She was exposed to the subtleties—and political undertones—of his music from a very young age. With her grandfather, Adrienne says, “Rachel has a very special relationship that is totally separate from mine or anybody else’s in the family.”
Rachel explains, “He’s always been Harry Belafonte … just my grandfather. We’ve joked with each other, and had fun. We’ve argued with each other at times, too. Being the oldest grandchild, I’ve spent the most time with him.”

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Belafonte’s granddaughter (left) Rachel Blue Biesemeyer with her mother Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer.
And just as she absorbed her parents’ social activism, Rachel learned from her grandfather, channeling her efforts into wild animal rescue and preservation, teaching, and working with her mother on projects sponsored by the Anir Foundation—a non-profit dedicated to providing socially responsible volunteer opportunities, internships and cultural awareness programs in southern Africa and the Caribbean—which they founded in 1997.
“Different families carry different mantles, and different expectations for their generations to come,” Adrienne says. “This one has been laid upon Rachel’s shoulders. I remember when we were talking to her about the fact that she had decided to be a preschool teacher, and she said, ‘You gotta get ’em young, Mom.’”
Adds Rachel, “I said, if I get them now and create the right wiring this early, then these are the people who will be able to help make change. Everybody needs to do their part, but if I can instill a globalistic and accepting nature in my 2-year-olds, then hopefully they will become teachers and activists and do things well, too.”
Through the Anir Foundation, Adrienne wants to teach people about Africa, its many nations, and, she hopes, give them some inkling of its vast size and incredible diversity. And to understand, people need to see Africa’s disparities: “The disparity in regard to wealth and poverty, and recognizing that poverty is probably the root of all evil. Not money being the root of all evil, but poverty.”
For Rachel, seeing the African townships for the first time caused an epiphany. “Getting into the townships,” she says, “and seeing that this really is how people are living. Seeing the fancy towns … and these people are living in homes that have corrugated steel walls. The experience of witnessing it is eye-opening and heart-wrenching, but it’s also—to this day—somewhat hard to fathom that this is what [their] daily life is.”
Whether Anir Foundation volunteers work together on a Habitat for Humanity construction project, or travel to Africa as medical, sociology or law school students, the common denominator is change. Adrienne asks all volunteers to keep a journal of their experiences, and the key sentiment she finds expressed in their stories is, “Wow, it has changed my life … I appreciate what I learned. And it really is going to make me approach how I do things differently.”
It’s a theme that arises continually when speaking with the Belafontes—how learning and change can transcend language—from music to social activism to Adrienne’s story of her father communicating wordlessly with a man he’d just met in Africa. Before the interview ended, this reporter called it inspiring.
Belafonte corrected me: “It’s lifesaving.”
1 Comment
November 5, 2014
A. Lynn Williams
An Honor to Have the Belafonte Family at ASHA!
This was a wonderful interview! I can hardly wait to see these three generations at the ASHA Opening Session. What an honor to have Mr. Belafonte and his family speak to our members and kick off our convention!
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November 2014
Volume 19, Issue 11