Harry Belafonte, pioneering performer and activist, dies at 96

Harry Belafonte, the superstar entertainer who introduced a Caribbean flair to mainstream US music and became well known for his deep personal investment in civil rights, died Tuesday in Manhattan, his publicist said. He was 96.

The barrier-breaking artist-activist died of congestive heart failure at his New York home, according to the publicist’s statement. 

Born in Harlem to a Jamaican mother and a father from the French territory of Martinique, the calypso singer and actor spent part of his childhood in Jamaica before returning to New York — a binational upbringing that shaped his musical and political outlooks, and saw him campaign tirelessly for racial equality.

Belafonte’s calypso, the genre of Caribbean music that drew from West African and French influences, saw him skyrocket to fame in the midst of post-World War II prosperity and suburbanization.

His third album, entitled simply “Calypso” and released in 1956, became the first LP to sell more than one million copies in the United States.

The album featured what became Belafonte’s signature song, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” 

Based on a Jamaican folk tune, Belafonte sings with a Caribbean accent, “Stack banana ’til de morning come / Daylight come and we wan go home.”

Belafonte scoffed at suggestions that the song was simply feel-good dance music, calling the track a rebellious take on workers who were demanding fair wages.

Even in his early career, Belafonte did not shy away from controversy. 

He starred in the 1957 film “Island in the Sun” as an upwardly mobile Black politician on a fictional island who becomes involved with a woman from the white elite, in one of Hollywood’s earliest depictions of interracial romance.

In 1954, he became the first African American man to win a Tony Award, for his role in the Broadway musical “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.”

Six years later, he became the first African American to win an Emmy Award for “Tonight with Belafonte,” his musical television program. He also won three Grammys.

– ‘Struggle’ –

But his life’s work went far beyond performance, with both his music and movies taking a supporting role to his activism.

As the civil rights movement grew in momentum, Belafonte took on a trailblazing role that went far beyond moral support. He became a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. and personally opened his wallet to fund the cause.

“When people think of activism, they always think some sacrifice is involved, but I’ve always considered it a privilege and an opportunity,” he said in a 2004 speech at Emory University.

Belafonte brought King and the Birmingham, Alabama pastor Fred Shuttlesworth to his New York apartment to plan out the 1963 campaign to integrate the notoriously racist southern city.

When King was thrown into a Birmingham jail, Belafonte raised $50,000 — nearly $500,000 in current value — to post his bail, at a time when the rise of pop music was bringing wealth and lavish lifestyles to many entertainers.

“Belafonte’s global popularity and his commitment to our cause is a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the civil rights movement here in America,” King said of Belafonte.

“We are blessed by his courage and moral integrity.”

Despite his frequent criticism of American policies, Belafonte said the United States “offers a dream that cannot be fulfilled as easily anywhere else in the world” — but one that is only attainable through “struggle.”

After his election to the presidency, John F. Kennedy appointed Belafonte to the advisory committee of the newly created Peace Corps, through which the young president hoped the United States would showcase its power through non-military means.

But Belafonte said that while many in the Peace Corps hoped to “show how beautiful we are as a people,” his mission was different — to expose young Americans to the struggles of the developing world.

Belafonte spent increasing time in Africa, especially Kenya, and became one of the foremost US artists fighting apartheid in South Africa.

His album “Paradise in Gazankulu,” released in 1988, revolved around the oppression of black South Africans and was recorded partially in Johannesburg with local artists.

Belafonte also initiated the USA for Africa supergroup whose “We Are The World” song in 1985 raised millions of dollars for Ethiopia’s famine victims.

Accepting an award in Hollywood in 2014, Belafonte said that the entertainment industry had a sorry past record on race, but offered hope for the future.

“I really wish I could be around for the rest of the century to see what Hollywood does with the rest of the century,” he said. 

“Maybe, just maybe, it could be civilization’s game-changer.”


Originally published as Harry Belafonte, pioneering performer and activist, dies at 96

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