US singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte dies at 96

Wednesday April 26 2023
Harry Belafonte

US singer Harry Belafonte on February 12, 2011 poses during a photo call for photographers in Berlin on the third day of the international Berlinale film festival. The superstar entertainer well known for introducing a Caribbean flair to US mainstream US music and personal investment in civil rights died on April 25, 2023 in Manhattan, US. PHOTO | JOHN MACDOUGALL | AFP


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 on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 96.

“The barrier-breaking artist-activist died of congestive heart failure at his New York home,” his publicist said in a 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 ‘Calypso’ and released in 1956, became the first LP to sell more than one million copies in the United States.

The album featured what would become Belafonte's signature song, "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)". He scoffed at the idea it was simply feel-good dance music, calling the track a rebellious take on workers demanding fair wages.


Tributes sent

“Belafonte used his platform in almost a subversive way because he would sneak messages in there, revolutionary messages," crooner John Legend said on Tuesday at a Time magazine event.

Harry Belafonte

US singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte on October 26 speaks in Paris. PHOTO | PRESSENS BILD | AFP

"When people just thought he was singing about good times and the islands, he was always infusing messages of protest and revolution in everything he did," Legend added.

Legend was one of many from all walks of American life to send tributes; singers, politicians and activists hailed Belafonte's talent, advocacy and trailblazing contributions.

"Harry Belafonte was not only a great entertainer, but he was a courageous leader in the fight against racism and worker oppression," US Progressive Senator Bernie Sanders wrote.

Even early in his 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 and a humanitarian award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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

"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.

The civil rights movement

He opened his own coffers to back the civil rights movement, becoming close with Martin Luther King Jr. 

Belafonte brought the civil rights leader along with 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.

"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 once said.

Former US president John Kennedy and Harry Belafonte

Former US president John Kennedy (L) having a chat with Harry Belafonte (C) as well as unidentified woman. PHOTO | AFP

King's daughter Bernice on Tuesday posted a photo of a crying Belafonte seated with her mother Coretta at the slain activist's funeral.

"When I was a child Harry Belafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways," she wrote.

"I won't forget. Rest well sir," Bernice added.

Journey to stardom

Harold George Bellanfanti Jr was born on March 1, 1927, in New York's Harlem.

As a child, he moved to Jamaica with his mother and younger brother and described his Jamaican roots as shaping ‘almost everything’ in his life.

Belafonte did not grow up believing he would enjoy a promising career.

He had vocal gifts and striking good looks but suffered from dyslexia and dropped out of high school to serve in the US Navy during World War II. When he returned, he worked as a janitor.

At one point, he received a tip of two tickets to the American Negro Theatre which inspired him to take acting classes.

He then met Sidney Poitier, who was born just eight days before Belafonte to parents from The Bahamas; the actor would become a lifelong friend.

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

Beyond Belafonte's involvement in the civil rights movement, former US president John F. Kennedy appointed him to the advisory committee of the soft-power initiative Peace Corps meant to promote US goals abroad.

But the singer said he wanted the program to also expose young Americans to the struggles of the developing world.

His time in Africa

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.

Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte

South African musician Miriam Makeba (L) singing with Harry Belafonte (R). PHOTO | AFP

"Your passion, love, knowledge and respect for Africa was unlimited. Your wisdom made me strong. Your music inspired me," said Beninese singer Angelique Ki’djo.

Belafonte also initiated the USA for Africa super group whose ‘We Are The World’ song in 1985 raised millions of dollars for Ethiopia's famine victims.

He is survived by his wife Pamela, four children and two stepchildren, and eight grandchildren.

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. Maybe, just maybe, it could be civilization's game-changer," he said.