Harry Belafonte, groundbreaking Calypso star and civil rights activist, dead at 96

The 96-year-old musician and actor Harry Belafonte utilized his success as a Calypso sensation to promote civil rights and humanitarian causes.

“Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” “Jamaica Farewell,” and “Jump in the Line” are some of Belafonte’s well-known songs. According to the New York Times, the cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to his spokesman Ken Sunshine. At his Manhattan home, he passed away.

The son of low-income Caribbean immigrants, Belafonte was born on March 1st, 1927 in Harlem, New York City. Before moving back to New York City in the 1940s, he lived with his grandmother in Jamaica for a number of years during his formative years.

“The most difficult time in my life was when I was a kid,” he would later tell People Magazine. “My mother gave me affection, but, because I was left on my own, also a lot of anguish.”

In order to join the Navy during World War II, he dropped out of high school. He went back to New York after his service to seek a career in theater. Belafonte attended the same drama school as Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau, according to Biography. He also became a well-known jazz club performer at the same period, supported by performers like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

For his Broadway debut in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, Belafonte received a Tony Award. He quickly achieved fame in movies as well, playing opposite Dorothy Dandridge in movies like the musical Carmen Jones.

Additionally, he contributed to the globalization of traditional Trinbagonian Calypso music. His 1956 album Calypso was a major success and the first record to ever sell one million copies. It also featured his signature tune, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”

“That song is a way of life,” Belafonte later told The New York Times. “It’s a song about my father, my mother, my uncles, the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica.”

For his 1959 television show Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte, he also made history by being the first Black person to win an Emmy.

Although Belafonte was referred to as the “King of Calypso,” he was also well-known for being an activist all of his life.

He grew close to Martin Luther King Jr. and was an outspoken supporter of the US civil rights movement, taking part in many demonstrations and rallies. Paul Robeson, a fellow performer and activist, served as his mentor.

“Paul Robeson had been my first great formative influence; you might say he gave me my backbone,” Belafonte later wrote in his memoir. “Martin King was the second; he nourished my soul.”

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered at the 1963 March on Washington, which he assisted in organizing. Additionally, he supported the voter registration campaigns and the 1961 Freedom Rides. He secured funds for the release of other civil rights activists and freed MLK on a bail bond.

Belafonte remained an activist his entire life. He put together a supergroup of well-known musicians in the 1980s to record a song for African famine relief called “We Are the World,” which went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time and raised over $10 million when it was released.

He was a strong opponent of the Iraq War and was also active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Today, Belafonte is honored for his pioneering music as well as his unwavering support of civil rights.

Many lifetime achievement awards have been given to him, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, and the honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He became the oldest living recipient of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s induction in 2022.

Peace be with you, Harry Belafonte. a fantastic musician who dedicated his life to upholding his principles.