Harry Belafonte, Legendary Entertainer and Activist, Dead at 96
Harry Belafonte, the legendary singer, actor, and civil rights activist, died Tuesday, April 25, Rolling Stone has confirmed. He was 96.
Belafonte died at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with longtime spokesman Ken Sunshine adding the cause was congestive heart failure.
Belafonte rose to prominence in the Fifties when his interpretation of calypso music popularized the sounds of the Caribbean for an American mainstream audience. His many hits include “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” He appeared in numerous films as an actor, notably with Dorothy Dandridge or his prefame friend Sidney Poitier. Carmen Jones from 1954 and Island in the Sun from 1957 thrust him into superstardom, breaking barriers as a Black idol and sex symbol, even as his musical career peaked with the million-selling albums Calypso in 1956 and Jump Up Calypso in 1961.
His career dipped in the Sixties thanks to the onrush of rock & roll, and he ramped up his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, becoming part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle. His commitment to social justice never wavered, including his opposition to apartheid and support of famine relief in Africa. This culminated in his instrumental role in conceiving the star-studded 1985 charity project USA for Africa.
Fellow Civil Rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton remembered Belafonte as “a true mentor and friend” in a statement shared with Rolling Stone. He continued: “I am heartbroken to hear of his death but inspired by the long, fruitful life he led. He realized his platform gave him the ability to affect change. He used it to advance the Civil Rights Movement and get others in his position off the sidelines. I cherished the time he would give me and others to both guide and correct us. He was a culture-changing entertainer, a history-changing activist, and an unmatchable intellectual.”
“Harry Belafonte was a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up. He lived a good life – transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style,” Barack Obama tweeted.
President Joe Biden said in a statement, “Jill and I are saddened by the passing of a groundbreaking American who used his talent, his fame, and his voice to help redeem the soul of our Nation. Harry Belafonte was born to Caribbean parents in Harlem, New York on March 1, 1927, when segregation was the order of American society. To our Nation’s benefit, Harry never accepted those false narratives and unjust boundaries. He dedicated his entire life to breaking barriers and bridging divides. Harry Belafonte’s accomplishments are legendary and his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for human dignity will endure. He will be remembered as a great American.”
Tony Bennett shared a tribute on Instagram, writing, “Met Harry in 1948 and knew then he would be a huge star. More than that, he fought for social justice and equality and never, ever gave up. Our dearest of friends, he will be deeply missed by myself and so many for all he contributed to the world.”
Born in 1927 in Harlem, Harold Bellanfanti was the son of immigrants from Jamaica. His first creative love was the theater. He and Poitier got into acting together, which spun off into Belafonte’s music career. Before he became known, he was once backed by a band including Charlier Parker and Miles Davis; a switch to Caribbean music followed as Belafonte became entranced by the folk music of his parents’ homeland. His first major single, 1953’s “Matilda,” was a stew of styles, including calypso and the Jamaican folk form mento.
He struck gold with that formula in 1956 with his biggest hit, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” a jaunty yet haunting ode to dock workers on the night shift. It appeared, along with the hit “Jamaica Farewell,” on his 1956 album Calypso, which spent a staggering 31 consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart.
He continued to have hits into the Sixties, including the lively “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)” from 1961, but the arrival of acts like the Beatles and Bob Dylan marked a downshift in Belafonte’s generation of performers. Ironically, Belafonte’s 1962 album Midnight Special gave a young Dylan his first professional recording credit as a musician and harmonica player on the album’s title track.
Still, Belafonte was an entertainment icon — and his increasingly vocal stance regarding civil rights was a risky move. “I was at the height of my success. Hit records and movies, and being rewarded by millions of people coming in attendance to the audiences that I played around the world,” he remembered in 2016. “The machinery of oppression was always at work trying to discredit me, make me a communist, make me unpatriotic, etc., etc., etc. And it takes a lot of courage to stand up in the face of that onslaught, that reactive moment and not bend to the wind.”
Belafonte walked it like he talked it. For instance, in a tale he recounts in his 2011 memoir My Song, he and Poitier drove from New York to Mississippi in 1964 with $50,000 in cash to bail out jailed volunteers who were arrested trying to register Black voters — and the duo dodged Ku Klux Klan bullets in the process. Less dramatically but no less profoundly, he and fellow pop star Petula Clark bucked would-be censors in 1968 when they appeared on an NBC special together — and Clark touched Belafonte’s arm while they sang, a gesture of interracial intimacy that the show’s producer found offensive and wanted removed. The duo refused, and the uncut segment aired.
Television and film roles continued for Belafonte, including a trilogy of crime comedies with Bill Cosby in the Seventies, beginning with 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night. He raised his profile in the Eighties with USA for Africa and its resultant single, “We Are the World,” on which he sings alongside Dylan, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, and a host of fellow music legends. Belafonte received an unexpected bump in 1988 when Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice prominently and memorably featured two of his classic hits, “Day-O” and “Jump in the Line.” And in 1996, Belafonte won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor for his turn in Robert Altman’s Kansas City.
In 2011, HBO aired the Belafonte documentary Sing Your Song that helped cement his legacy. “If you look at the history of my life, it’s all movement,” he said that year. “I was attached to a history and a way of life that was quite eventful.” His life never stopped being eventful. In recent years, he ruffled feathers by praising Hugo Chavez and calling George W. Bush a terrorist, and his position on Colin Kaepernick’s protests left no doubt as to where he stood: “To mute the slave has always been to the best interest of the slave owner,” he said. “And I think that when a Black voice is raised in protest to oppression, those who are comfortable with our oppression are the first to criticize us for daring to speak out against it. I think that it’s a noble thing that he’s done.”
For more than six decades, Belafonte was known as the King of Calypso. He opened the eyes and ears of America at large to the music of Jamaica, paving the way for the subsequent influx of reggae. And his influence has popped up in the least expected places. “I can’t sing like Harry Belafonte, but I love him,” Tom Waits declared in 2004. “If I told you all I’m doin’ is trying to sound like Harry Belafonte, you wouldn’t get it.”
“You were a complicated father who lived one of the fullest lives in human history,” Belafonte’s daughter Gina wrote on social media. “I’m so grateful and lucky to have been and be so close to you. To know how much you loved me and were proud of my path. You always told me to never forget how much you love me and i am grateful you knew how much I loved hearing it. You could be harsh and terrifying, you could be strong and strategic. But when you pulled me in, close to your heart the embrace was ever lasting. You lived with purpose and we are all better for your contributions.”
Oprah Winfrey wrote, “Another ‘GREAT TREE’ has fallen: Harry Belafonte, a Trailblazer and Hero to us all. Thank you for your music, your artistry, your activism, your fight for civil rights and justice — especially risking your life back in the day to get money to the movement. Your being here on Earth has Blessed us all.”
“Harry Belafonte was one of our nation’s most powerful voices for change,” Vice President Kamala Harris said. “Like all true patriots, Harry Belafonte had the ability to see what could be and had the courage to work to realize that vision. He fought to help America live up to our highest ideals: dignity, equity, and justice for all. For years, it was my honor to call Harry a dear friend and rely on his wisdom and counsel. America has lost a giant.”
In an interview following the New York premiere of Sing Your Song in 2011, Belafonte, then 84, spoke with chilling prescience about the coming sociopolitical storm, from Black Lives Matter to the Trump presidency: “This constituency in Africa, parts of the Middle East, and here in the United States: We want the oppression to stop. I feel that what was done in the years of the Civil Rights Movement, the sacrifices made by those students … really shaped a future for this country that we have momentarily lost.” When asked if he held out hope for the future, he smiled and said, “I have to think it’s winnable. Otherwise, I may as well go home, smoke a spliff, and call it a day.”
More somberly, in 2016, he assessed the state of the current resistance against racism and injustice, saying, “Well, the same things needed now are the same things needed before. Movements don’t die because struggle doesn’t die.”
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