Harry Belafonte, a pioneering actor and singer who later became an activist, humanitarian, and voice for human rights throughout the world, has passed away. He was 96.
According to publicist Ken Sunshine, Belafonte passed away on Tuesday at his New York residence from congestive heart failure with his wife Pamela by his side.
Known for his hallmark song "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," which features the call "Day-O! ", Belafonte was one of the first Black artists to become well-known in the film industry and to sell a million albums as a vocalist. Daaaaay-O," but he left a deeper impact once he curtailed his stage time in the 1960s and carried out his hero Paul Robeson's dictum that artists are "gatekeepers of truth."
Belafonte is the poster child and best example of a celebrity activist. Few were able to match his dedication, time commitment, and prestige as a hub for the civil rights movement, Hollywood, and Washington.
Belafonte helped plan and collect money for protest marches and charity concerts in addition to taking part in them. He collaborated closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a friend and generational peer, frequently advocating for him before politicians and other performers and providing financial support. By criticizing Jay-Z and Beyoncé for not fulfilling their "social responsibilities," he put his life and livelihood at danger and established high expectations for future Black superstars. He also served as a mentor to Usher, Common, Danny Glover, and many other people. He played an aged statesman instructing youthful activists about the nation's history in Spike Lee's 2018 film "BlacKkKlansman," which was appropriately cast.
Civil rights activist Andrew Young, a friend of Belafonte, would remark that Belafonte was a rare individual who grew more radical with age. He was always on the case and relentless, eager to take on Southern segregationists, Northern liberals, the rich Koch brothers, and the nation's first Black president, Barack Obama, whom Belafonte would recall pleading to give him "some slack."
What makes you believe that's not what I've been doing, Belafonte retorted?”
Since the 1950s, Belafonte has been a significant artist. His lead performance in John Murray Anderson's "Almanac" earned him a Tony Award in 1954, and five years later he made history by being the first Black artist to win an Emmy for the television special "Tonight with Harry Belafonte."
He and Dorothy Dandridge co-starred in the 1954 musical "Carmen Jones," which Otto Preminger directed and which was a critical and commercial success for an all-Black ensemble. Because of the interracial relationship shown in the 1957 film "Island in the Sun" between Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, the movie was outlawed in a number of Southern communities where theater owners had been intimidated by the KKK.
Belafonte was unwillingly dubbed the "King of Calypso" when his record "Calypso," which was published in 1955, became the first solo artist's album to be legally recognized as selling one million copies. Young Bob Dylan, who made his recording debut in the early 1960s by playing harmonica on Belafonte's "Midnight Special," was one of Belafonte's admirers.
Dylan later said, "Harry was the finest balladeer in the nation and everybody knew it. "You hope that some of Harry's greatness rubs off on you because he was that rare kind of character that radiates greatness."
King phoned Belafonte in the spring of 1956 and requested a meeting, at which point the two became friends. At the height of his singing career, Belafonte was shortly staging a benefit performance for the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that helped make King a household name. They chatted for hours, and Belafonte would recall that King lifted him to the "higher plane of social protest." He made the decision to put civil rights first in the early 1960s.
In his 2011 autobiography "My Song," Belafonte stated, "I was having almost daily talks with Martin." I came to the conclusion that the movement was more crucial than anything else.
Among the first politicians to solicit his opinions, which he readily provided, were the Kennedys. At a period when Black people were equally likely to support Republicans as they were Democrats, John F. Kennedy was so eager for Belafonte's support that he paid a visit to his Manhattan home during the 1960 election. King and Kennedy met after Belafonte briefed them about King's significance and set up their meeting.
"I was quite taken by the fact that he (Kennedy) knew so little about the Black community," Belafonte said to NBC in 2013. "He knew the news headlines, but he wasn't really anywhere nuanced or detailed on the depth of Black anguish or what our struggle is really about," a participant said.
The Kennedys were frequently criticized by Belafonte for failing to stand up to the Democratic Party's powerful Southern segregationists at the time. He fought over the government's inability to defend the "Freedom Riders" who were attempting to integrate bus terminals with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president's brother. When playwright Lorraine Hansberry and others shocked Kennedy by asking if the country really merited Black devotion, he was there among the Black activists at a meeting with the attorney general that was widely reported.
"That caused Bobby to become crimson. Belafonte subsequently said, "I had never seen him so frightened.
Belafonte played a significant role in the momentous March on Washington in 1963. He convinced the left-wing Marlon Brando to co-chair the Hollywood delegation with the more conservative Charlton Heston, a pairing aimed to appeal to the widest possible audience. He enlisted his close friend Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and other celebrities. After three "Freedom Summer" volunteers were killed in 1964, he and Poitier personally transported tens of thousands of dollars to activists in Mississippi; at one point, KKK members were pursuing the two actors in their automobile. He invited artists Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, and others to perform for the Selma, Alabama, marches the next year.
Belafonte assisted in choosing the suit King was buried in after his 1968 murder, sat close to his wife Coretta at the funeral, and continued to provide for King's family, in part thanks to an insurance policy he had taken out on King during his lifetime.
When I met Dr. King, "much of my political outlook was already in place," Belafonte later said. "I was fully dedicated to the civil rights battle and well on my way. He confirmed the expectations I had brought to him.
Belafonte was cut off from the civil rights movement after King's passing. Stokely Carmichael and other "Black Power" militants turned him off, and he didn't get along well with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who was King's chosen successor. However, the entertainer's causes went well beyond the United States.
He organized Nelson Mandela's first trip to the United States after his release from jail in 1990. He also assisted in introducing South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba to American audiences. The two were honored with a Grammy in 1964 for their concert recording "An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba." A few years prior, he was the driving force behind the Grammy-winning, "We Are the World" all-star CD, which sold millions of copies and raised money for famine relief in Africa.
Poitier, who passed away in 2022, shared similarities with Belafonte in his early life and career. Both grew up in the Caribbean for a portion of their formative years before moving to New York. Both men participated in World War II's military service before beginning their careers as actors in the American Negro Theatre. Although Poitier supported civil rights, he nevertheless spent the most of his time performing, which caused some friction between them. While Poitier enjoyed a lengthy and legendary career as a starring actor and box office success in the 1960s, Belafonte became weary of playing and rejected roles he thought were "neutered."
"Sidney had a really saintly serenity and elegance. In his memoir, Belafonte stated, "Not me. "I also didn't want to censor my sexuality. In every part that he played, Sidney accomplished that.
Belafonte was a very real person. He admitted to having extramarital affairs, being a bad dad, and having a terrifying rage that was caused by a lifetime of insecurity. He revealed, "Woe to the musician who missed his cue, or the agent who botched a booking."
In his autobiography, he scolded Poitier for engaging in a "radical breach" by declining to play Mandela in a TV miniseries that Belafonte had envisioned and then accepting the role in a competing project. He grew so far from King's widow and kids that he wasn't invited to give a eulogy at her burial. He later filed a lawsuit against three of King's children for access to some of the civil rights activist's personal files, alleging that the family was focused with "selling trinkets and memorabilia."
When he compared Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state, to a slave "permitted to come into the house of the master" for his work in the George W. Bush administration, he made headlines years earlier. He was there in Washington at Obama's inauguration in January 2009 and presided over the Inaugural Peace Ball alongside Baez and other dignitaries. Obama, however, came under fire from Belafonte in the future for breaking his word and lacking "fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or Black."
During the Kennedy administration, Belafonte worked as a cultural adviser for the Peace Corps. Decades later, she was a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. He won several honorary awards for his work in music and movies, including the Grammy for lifetime achievement, the National Medal of Arts, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Motion Picture Academy, and many others. He particularly enjoyed receiving the 1996 New York Film Critics Award for his performance as a mobster in Robert Altman's "Kansas City."
In his autobiography, he stated, "I'm as proud of that film critics' award as I am of all my gold records."
He had four kids and was married three times, most recently to photographer Pamela Frank. Shari, David, and Gina all went on to become actresses. Eight grandkids and two stepchildren are also left behind by him.
Harold George Bellanfanti Jr., the future Harry Belafonte, was born in Harlem in 1927. His mother, who was mostly Scottish, worked as a domestic; his father was a fisherman and chef of Dutch and Jamaican descent. Belafonte recounted that both of her parents were undocumented immigrants who had "an underground life, as criminals of a sort, on the run."
Belafonte's father brutally beat him, and the family was violent; as a result, he was transferred to live with relatives in Jamaica for a while. Belafonte struggled with reading and dropped out of high school before enlisting in the Navy. He subsequently recognized that he was likely dyslexic. His political education began when he read "Color and Democracy" by the Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois while serving in the military.
He was hired as an assistant janitor for a few apartment complexes in New York after the war. One of the tenants thought highly enough of him to give him two complimentary seats to a production at the American Negro Theatre, a black community theater. Belafonte started as a volunteer and then as an actor because he was so pleased. Poitier was a close friend of Belafonte's, and the two of them were "skinny, brooding and vulnerable within our hard shells of self-protection," the author later said.
While enrolled in acting school at the New School for Social Research, Belafonte met Brando, Walter Matthau, and other future celebrities. Belafonte and Brando grew close, occasionally traveling on Brando's motorcycle, double dating, or playing congas together at parties. Brando was an actor who inspired Belafonte. Friendships with everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt and Fidel Castro to Frank Sinatra and Lester Young would result from Belafonte's political and creative life throughout the years.
Early theatrical credits for him were "Days of Our Youth" and Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Peacock," a production that Belafonte remembers less for himself than for a backstage admirer, actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson.
"What I remember more than anything Robeson said, was the love he radiated, and the profound responsibility he felt, as an actor, to use his platform as a bully pulpit," Belafonte said in his autobiography. His advocacy for left-leaning organizations and relationship with Paul Robeson finally attracted the attention of the authorities. Leftists believed, and Belafonte categorically disputed, that he had provided names of suspected Communists so he could perform on Sullivan's show. FBI investigators visited him at home, and accusations of Communism almost lost him a performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
By the 1950s, Belafonte had also taken up singing, landing concerts at the Blue Note, the Vanguard, and other clubs; Charlie Parker and Max Roach accompanied him for one performance; and he had begun to ingest folk, blues, jazz, and the calypso he had heard while living in Jamaica. Beginning in 1954, he put out top 10 albums like "Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites" and "Belafonte," and his hit singles included "Mathilda," "Jamaica Farewell," and "The Banana Boat Song," a modified Caribbean ballad that he added to his "Calypso" album after it had already been published.
In his biography, Belafonte said, "We found ourselves one or two songs short, so we threw in 'Day-O' as filler."
He was a celebrity, but he was also ridiculed and occasionally sued for appropriating traditional works without splitting the proceeds. When Belafonte first declined to play "Day-O" live after giving televised performances against banana boat backdrops, he later expressed sorrow and voiced concern about being stereotyped as a calypso singer.
Belafonte was one of the few young performers to consider the financial side of entertainment. One of the first all-Black music publishing organizations was founded by him. In 1969, he produced "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," an Off-Broadway production. He also produced plays, films, and television programs. He was the first person of color to produce on television.
By standing in for Johnny Carson on the "Tonight" program for an entire week in 1968, Belafonte created history. Later that year, a straightforward, unplanned action triggered another significant event. Belafonte accompanied Petula Clark on the anti-war song "On the Path of Glory" during an appearance on a taped TV special featuring the British singer; at one point, Clark put a touch on Belafonte's arm. Chrysler, the show's sponsor, insisted that the section be reshot. For the first time ever on primetime television, Clark and Belafonte successfully resisted when a white woman touched a Black man's arm.
His other film credits include "Bobby," "White Man's Burden," cameos in Altman's "The Player" and "Ready to Wear," and the Altman-directed TV series "Tanner on Tanner." In 2011, HBO aired a documentary about Belafonte called "Sing Your Song."
Belafonte, who grew up in poverty, never considered himself to be an artist who later became an activist, but rather an activist who just so happened to be an artist.
Belafonte recalled his mother urging him as a child, "When you grow up, son, never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn't do it."