Harry Belafonte – who crushed Hollywood’s racial barriers in the 1950s, topped pop, blues and folk music charts in the 1960s, and became a human rights icon – died on Tuesday at his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
He was 96.
Belafonte died from congestive heart failure and with his wife Pamela by his side, according to his publicist Ken Sunshine.
With a glow that seems to live past his out-of-this-world personality, Belafonte, a Harlem native with deep Jamaican roots, got his start in entertainment as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. He spent his early years living with his grandmother in Jamaica and attending the island’s prestigious Wolmer’s Trust High School for Boys.
“He was a true ambassador for Jamaica and Jamaican culture, using his fame to highlight our beautiful island,” Andrew Holness, prime minister of Jamaica, said in a tweet. “Representing the best of our culture and values, his music and activism touched the hearts and minds of people globally.”
Propelled to international stardom with his dynamic acapella shout of “Day-O!” from The Banana Boat Song, Belafonte is known for popularizing calypso music with global audiences in the 1950s. His 1956 album Calypso was the first million-selling LP by a single artist in history.
Remarking on his passing, Brooklyn-bred rapper MC Lyte called Belafonte a glimmer of hope, strength, courage, and tenacity
“Mr. Belafonte took on the unpopular issues that most avoid,” said MC Lyte in a statement. “As a leader of social change, he displayed an undying love for his community and all of its people.”
Following in the footsteps of his hero Paul Robeson and Marcus Garvey, Belafonte was known for his humanitarian and civil rights works. As a great friend to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Belafonte played a critical role in raising money and setting the agenda for the Civil Rights Movement. He was also crucial in supporting the 1961 Freedom Rides and organizing the 1963 March on Washington. Belafonte also participated in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer–a campaign to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi.
“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,” civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton said on Instagram.
Being a true embodiment of the Jamaican motto, “Out of Many, One People,” Belafonte’s fight for human and civil rights went far beyond the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. From 1987 until his death, Belafonte was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Belafonte was also a leading voice to end Apartheid in South Africa. He served as one of the lead organizers of the USA for Africa “We Are The World” single, raising $100 million for famine relief in Ethiopia.
Belafonte is also known for breaking Hollywood’s racial lines. He used his stardom to change how Black characters were portrayed. His refusal to accept roles that amplified racial stereotyping signified his push to change Black folks’ depiction and how the world saw Black actors. A move that Adrienne “Gammy” Banfield Norris called the essence of his greatness.
“His impact as an actor was powerful. But as an activist, he was one of the most influential human beings of our generation,” said Banfield Norris, host of Facebook Watch’s Red Table Talk. “He was successful at his craft, and he chose to stand up and speak out about civil rights during a time when it was not easy or popular.”
The Jamaican-American singer eventually ventured into acting on the stage, and small and big screen. Inspired by a performance seen at the American Negro Theater, Belafonte took an acting class at the New School and starred in the 1955 Broadway revue 3 for Tonight and Gower Champion.
“He lived a good life – transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights,” former U.S. President Barack Obama said. “And he did it all with his signature smile and style. Michelle and I send our love to his wife, kids and fans.”
Actor Jalyn Hall, who starred in “Till,” agreed.
“He was a pioneer amongst pioneers. He was regal, educated, elegant and the epitome of black excellence,” said Hall, who was recently nominated for a 2023 Critics’ Choice Movie Award. “Without regard for his status in Hollywood, he was a leader in the Civil Rights movement.”
He continued, “Belafonte found it to be far more important to stand up for the rights of African Americans even at the expense of his career.”
Belafonte holds three Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award and a Tony Award. In 1989, he received the Kennedy Center Honors. President Bill Clinton also honored him with a National Medal of Arts in 1994. In 2022, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Harry Belafonte leaves behind four children.
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