Harry Belafonte, the legendary performer who popularized Caribbean music in the US and was renowned for his passionate support of civil rights, passed away on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 96.
The ground-breaking artist-activist passed away in his New York residence from congestive heart failure, according to a statement from his publicist.
A binational upbringing that shaped the calypso singer and actor's musical and political outlooks and led him to tirelessly advocate for racial equality led to his birth in Harlem to a mother who is Jamaican and a father who is from the French territory of Martinique.
Belafonte rose to stardom in the midst of post-World War II affluence and suburbanization thanks to the calypso, a style of Caribbean music that relied on West African and French elements.
His third album, “Calypso,” which was published in 1956, made history by being the first record to sell over a million copies in the country.
The album included “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” which would go on to become Belafonte's hallmark tune; he scorned the concept that it was just feel-good dance music and described the song as a rebellious perspective on workers seeking decent pay.
According to singer John Legend, Belafonte “used his platform in almost a subversive way because he would sneak messages in there, revolutionary messages,” during a Time magazine event on Tuesday.
“He was always infusing messages of protest and revolution into everything he did, even when people just thought he was singing about good times and the islands,” said one person.
Legend was just one of many Americans from all walks of life to pay respect; musicians, politicians, and activists praised Belafonte's abilities, activism, and ground-breaking achievements.
Progressive senator Bernie Sanders remarked that Harry Belafonte was “not only a great entertainer, but he was a courageous leader in the fight against racism and worker oppression.”
Belafonte did not avoid controversy from the start of his career.
In one of Hollywood's early representations of interracial romance, he played in the 1957 film “Island in the Sun” as a rising Black politician on a fictitious island who falls in love with a lady from the white elite.
He made history by being the first African American man to win a Tony Award in 1954 for his performance in the Broadway production of “John Murray Anderson's Almanac.”
Six years later, with his musical television show “Tonight with Belafonte,” he made history by being the first African American to receive an Emmy. Additionally, he received a humanitarian award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and three Grammys.
His advocacy played a supporting role to his music and acting, but his life's work extended well beyond mere performance.
In a 2004 address at Emory University, he remarked, “When people think of activism, they always think there's some sacrifice involved, but I've always considered it a privilege and an opportunity.”
He contributed money from his own resources to the civil rights movement and became close to Martin Luther King Jr.
When planning the 1963 campaign to integrate the infamously segregated southern city of Birmingham, Alabama, Belafonte invited the civil rights activist and Birmingham, Alabama, pastor Fred Shuttlesworth to his New York apartment.
When King was imprisoned in Birmingham, Belafonte donated $50,000, which today would be worth close to $500,000, to cover his bail.
King reportedly said that Belafonte's international notoriety and dedication to our cause were “a key component to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the civil rights movement here in America.”
On Tuesday, King's daughter Bernice shared a picture of a sobbing Belafonte sitting next to her mother Coretta during the activist's burial.
She added, “When I was a kid, #HarryBelafonte came through for my family in incredibly sensitive ways.
I won't overlook…Good night, sir.
On March 1, 1927, Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. was born in Harlem, New York.
He said that growing up in Jamaica with his mother and younger brother had influenced “almost everything” in his life.
Belafonte did not anticipate a successful career as a child.
Despite having dyslexia and attractive appearance, he dropped out of high school to join the US Navy during World War II despite having voice talent. He went back to his job as a janitor.
He once got two tickets to the American Negro Theater as a gratuity, which motivated him to enroll in acting courses.
He then met Sidney Poitier, an actor who would grow to be a longtime friend who was born only eight days before Belafonte to Bahamian parents.
Although Belafonte often criticized American politics, he said that the country “offers a dream that cannot be fulfilled as easily anywhere else in the world”—a desire that can only be attained via “struggle.”
Beyond his participation in the civil rights struggle, President John F. Kennedy named Belafonte to the advisory board of the Peace Corps, a soft-power effort designed to advance US objectives overseas.
The artist, however, said that he wished for the show to help make young Americans aware of the difficulties faced by the underdeveloped globe.
In addition to being one of the most prominent US singers opposing apartheid in South Africa, Belafonte spent an increasing amount of time in Africa, particularly Kenya.
His 1988 album “Paradise in Gazankulu,” which dealt with the persecution of black South Africans, was largely recorded in Johannesburg with local musicians.
Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo praised you for having an unbridled enthusiasm for, love for, understanding of, and respect for Africa. “Your insight gave me courage. I was influenced by your song.
In addition, Belafonte founded the supergroup USA for Africa, whose 1985 song “We Are The World” helped collect millions of dollars for Ethiopia's famine victims.
His wife Pamela, four biological children, two adopted children, and eight grandkids are still alive.
In accepting an award in Hollywood in 2014, Belafonte expressed regret for the entertainment sector's previous treatment of race but expressed optimism for the future.
I truly hope I could witness what Hollywood accomplishes with the remaining years of this century, he remarked.
Maybe, just maybe, it will revolutionize humanity.