According to his publicist Ken Sunshine, Harry Belafonte has passed away at the age of 96. The charismatic singer, actor, and activist who spawned a calypso craze in the U.S. with his music and blazed new trails for African American performers, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his Manhattan home. He was a fundamental supporter of the civil rights movement.
Born to West Indian immigrants in Harlem, he nearly single-handedly launched the popularity of Caribbean music with hits like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” Shortly after its debut in 1956, his album “Calypso,” which contained both of those songs, topped the Billboard album chart and remained there for 31 weeks. It was reported to be the first ever record by just one musician to sell over one million copies, coming right before Elvis Presley’s big break.
The Calypso King’s rise to the top of show business in the 1950s, during an age when segregation was still pervasive, was historic. But civil rights were always his main concern. The lithe, suave Belafonte was a celebrated Broadway actor as well as a versatile recording and concert star of the 1950s. Furthermore, he was one of the first Black leading men in Hollywood. Later, he expanded into producing theatre and television movies.
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The Early Days of Harry Belafonte
Being the son of a poor Jamaican lady who toiled as a domestic servant moulded Belafonte’s political consciousness. Being an avid reader, he soon developed a searing hatred of injustice.
“I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’ ” he once said. “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.”
His dedication to addressing social issues persisted as his career continued into the new millennium without ever taking a second position in his professional activities.
Belafonte was a key figure in the 1960s civil rights movement and afterwards engaged in humanitarian endeavours on behalf of poor African countries. He was a vocal opponent of colonial segregation in South Africa. Early in his career, he became friends with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and over the years, he has supported Dr. King and the cause of racial equality that he symbolised with fervour. He was a major fund-raiser for both Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he helped form with a large portion of the seed money.
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The Voice of Reason
Harry was known to have contributed funds to Dr. King’s and other civil rights activists’ jailbreaks. In 1963, he participated in the March on Washington. Afterwards, Dr. King made Belafonte’s spacious Manhattan apartment on West End Avenue his temporary residence.
Belafonte raised awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis and was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He also came up with the concept for the 1985 smash song “We Are the World,” which brought together a star-studded cast of pop and rock musicians, including Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and others, to collect money for relief efforts against famine in Africa.
Harry Belafonte didn’t get less rigid as his popularity and money increased. He attracted flak for labelling President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” and criticizing Black superstars like Jay Z and Beyonce for not adopting more assertive positions on social justice.
He even criticized Barack Obama so much during the then Senator’s first presidential run in 2008 that Obama asked him, “When are you going to cut me some slack?”
“What makes you think that’s not what I’ve been doing?” Belafonte responded.
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Success and Achievements
Harry Belafonte received several awards over his career, including two Grammys, a Tony, an Emmy, and the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. At the Governors Awards presentation in 2014, he was also given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Motion Picture Academy.
Through 1961, Belafonte would release five additional top-five albums, including two live performances captured at Carnegie Hall. In 1960, his album “Swing Dat Hammer” won a Grammy for best ethnic or traditional folk album. In 1965, he and South African folk singer Miriam Makeba collaborated on “An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba,” which also won the same honour. He was accorded the Kennedy Center Honor in 1989 and the National Medal of the Arts in 1994.
He also gave a future folk star Bob Dylan his first job: when the latter played harmonica on his 1962 record “Midnight Special.”
Harry frequently appeared on TV variety shows and, with his 1959 special “Tonight With Belafonte,” became the first Black artist to secure an Emmy.
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Endless Talent and A Drive for Stardom
Belafonte moved towards the New York theatre scene after serving in the military. Paul Robeson, a well-known Black performer, activist, and actor, served as a mentor early on in his life. He attended Broadway performances with Sidney Poitier, another struggling young actor, and studied acting with Erwin Piscator. Just like Poitier, he appeared in the American Negro Theatre in Harlem.
But Harry Belafonte originally gained global recognition as a nightclub performer. After starting his singing career at New York’s Royal Roost, he made his recording debut in 1949 on Roost Records, originally focusing on pop and jazz. His passion in American folk music eventually blossomed down the road.
His third wife Pamela, his daughters Shari, Adrienne, and Gina, his son David, his stepchildren Sarah and Lindsey, and his eight grandchildren survive him.
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An entity of flesh and bones in pursuit of becoming a higher being. A connoisseur of the mystic arts and everything musical. His origins are unknown, and so are his true motives.