Harry Belafonte, the dashing singer, actor and activist who became an indispensable supporter of the civil rights movement, has died.
His publicist Ken Sunshine said he died Tuesday morning of congestive heart failure.
Belafonte was dubbed the “King of Calypso” after the success of his ’56 hit, The Banana Boat Song (Day-O) and he became a movie star after acting in the film adaption of the Broadway musical, Carmen Jones.
But Belafonte biggest contributions took place offstage. He was a key strategist, fundraiser and mediator for the civil rights movement. He continually risked his entertainment career – and at least once his life – for his activism. He became a close friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr..
Belafonte’s political consciousness was shaped by the experience of growing up as the impoverished son of a poor Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant.
I’ve often responded to queries that ask,
‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’
My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.”
The breadth and scope of Belafonte’s activism was amazing;
- He saw the civil rights movement as a global struggle
- He led a campaign against apartheid in South Africa
- Befriended Nelson Mandela
- mobilized support for the fight against HIV/AIDS
- Became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador
He also had the idea for recording the 1985 hit song, We Are the World which assembled Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen and other top artists of the day to raise money for famine relief in Africa.
And Belafonte didn’t mellow as his wealth and fame grew. He called President George W. Bush after he led an invasion of Iraq,
the greatest terrorist in the world”
He criticized Black celebrities such as Jay Z and Beyonce for not taking bolder stands on social justice and he raked Barack Obama over the coals so much during the then his first presidential run in 2008 that Obama asked him,
When are you going to cut me some slack?”
What make you think that’s not what I’ve been doing?”
Harry Belafonte supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his work as a humanitarian and civil rights activist continues today. “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open," said Coretta Scott King. pic.twitter.com/sUNhzGZK6y— TCM (@tcm) January 18, 2021
Belafonte won a Tony and was the first African American ever to win an Emmy for his 1959 variety show.
Among a lifetime of other accolades, Belafonte was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 and the the NAACP’s highest honor, the Spingarn Medal in 2013.
He spoke with pride about the racial protests that spread across the US in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd, writing that
we have never had so many White allies, wailing to stand together for freedom, for honor, for a justice that free us all in the end…”
A group of Black students approached Belafonte in Harlem in 2016 and asked if there was anything he was still looking for. Belafonte replied,
What I’ve always been looking for: Where resides the rebel heart?
Without the rebellious heart, without people who understand that there’s no sacrifice we can make that is too great to retrieve that which we’ve lost, we will forever be distracted with possessions and trinkets and title.”
Harry Belfonte was was 96.
Breaking News: Harry Belafonte, the barrier-breaking singer, actor and activist who became a major force in the civil rights movement, has died at 96. https://t.co/LTpfanpUDq pic.twitter.com/7aUl89rLzA— The New York Times (@nytimes) April 25, 2023
(Photo, YouTube; via CNN)