Singer, actor, and human rights activist Harry Belafonte died on Tuesday at the age of 96 years old of congestive heart failure.
Harry Belafonte was known for breaking racial barriers and balancing his activism with his artistry in such ways that made people all over the world listen.
According to his representative, Belafonte, an EGOT holder having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards died at his home in New York.
Harry was born in Harlem to Caribbean parents; his mother was from Jamaica while his father was from the Island of Martinique. His mother, who worked as a cleaner, took him back to her native Jamaica, where he learned the native culture.
Harry Belafonte’s performance was known for its style, class, and charisma. Notable is his 1950s recordings for RCA Victor, which included his iconic version of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O” (also known as “The Banana Boat Song”) set off a craze for calypso music.
In an interview with NPR in 2011, he said that his recording of “The Banana Boat Song” was inspired by the vendors he heard singing in the streets.
“The song is a work song. It’s about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid. They’re begging for the tallyman to come and give them an honest count: ‘Count the bananas that I’ve picked so I can be paid.’ When people sing in delight and dance and love it, they don’t really understand unless they study the song — that they’re singing a work song that’s a song of rebellion,” he said.
Harry Belafonte dropped out of high school and joined the Navy years later. After World War II, he took a work as a janitor’s assistant when someone gave him tickets to a performance at the American Negro Theatre.
That captivated him and he started training there, alongside Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. He then began singing in clubs, and soon afterward, got a recording contract.
Harry Belafonte also starred in movies and appeared on TV shows. In 1959, he had a show on CBS called The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte, the one-hour program had dance numbers, folk songs, and both Black and white performers. The program won an Emmy Award, which was the first for an African American.
Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s close friends, and he was a support block for the 1963 Freedom March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, and when Dr. Martin Luther King was held jailed, Belafonte was there to raise money for his bail.
However, his relationship with the King’s family later went south after Belafonte filed a lawsuit against King’s estate in 2013 over the fate of three documents that the civil rights leader had given him, and which Belafonte tried to auction off in order to fund nonprofit work.
According to Martin Luther King’s family, Belafonte had “wrongfully acquired” the documents. Belafonte and the estate later settled out of court the following year, with Belafonte retaining the materials.
Harry Belafonte also helped to arrange Nelson Mandela’s first trip to the United States after he was released from prison.
Belafonte also criticized reputable figures; He criticized former U.S. President Barack Obama for not showing enough concern for the poor, and in an interview, he said Jay-Z and Beyonce, have “turned their back on social responsibility.” Jay-Z responded on his track “Nickels And Dimes”: “Mr. Day-O, major fail.” The two men eventually made up.
Late Harry Belafonte is survived by his wife – Pamela Frank, four children, two stepchildren, and eight grandchildren.