Harry Belafonte, a singer, songwriter and groundbreaking actor who started his entertainment career belting Day O in his 1950s hit song Banana Boat before turning to political activism, has died at the age of 96, the New York Times reported on April 25.
As a Black leading man who explored racial themes in 1950s movies, Belafonte would later move on to working with his friend Martin Luther King Jr. during the U.S. civil rights movement in the early 1960s. He became the driving force behind the celebrity-studded, famine-fighting hit song We Are the World in the 1980s.
Belafonte once said he was in a constant state of rebellion that was driven by anger.
“I’ve got to be a part of whatever the rebellion is that tries to change all this,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “The anger is a necessary fuel. Rebellion is healthy.”
Belafonte was born in New York City’s borough of Manhattan but spent his early childhood in his family’s native Jamaica. Handsome and suave, he came to be known as the “King of Calypso” early in his career. He was the first Black person allowed to perform in many plush nightspots and also had racial breakthroughs in movies at a time when segregation prevailed in much of the United States.
In Island in the Sun in 1954 his character entertained notions of a relationship with a white woman played by Joan Fontaine, which reportedly triggered threats to burn down theaters in the American South. In 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow Belafonte played a bank robber with a racist partner.
In the 1960s he campaigned with King, and in the 1980s, he worked to end apartheid in South Africa and coordinated Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the United States.
‘We are the world’
Belafonte traveled the world as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, in 1987 and later started an AIDS foundation. In 2014 he received an Academy Award for his humanitarian work.
Belafonte provided the impetus for We Are the World, the 1985 all-star musical collaboration that raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia. After seeing a grim news report on the famine, he wanted to do something similar to the fund-raising song Do They Know It’s Christmas? by the British supergroup Band Aid a year earlier.
We Are the World featured superstars such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Diana Ross and raised millions of dollars.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?'” Belafonte said in a National Public Radio interview in 2011. “I say to them, ‘I was long an activist before I became an artist.'”
Even in his late 80s, Belafonte was still speaking out on race and income equality and urging President Barack Obama to do more to help the poor. He was a co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington held the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president in January 2017.
Belafonte’s politics made headlines in January 2006 during a trip to Venezuela when he called President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.” That same month he compared the U.S. Homeland Security Department to the Gestapo of Nazi Germany.
An anthology of his music was released to mark Belafonte’s 90th birthday on March 1, 2017. A few weeks before the launch, Belafonte told Rolling Stone magazine that singing was a way for him to express injustices in the world.
“It gave me a chance to make political commentary, to make social statements, to talk about things that I found that were unpleasant – and things that I found that were inspiring,” he said.
Born Harold George Bellanfanti in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, he moved to Jamaica before returning to New York to attend high school.
He had described his father an abusive drunk who abandoned him and his mother, leaving Belafonte with a longing for a stable family. He drew strength from his mother, an uneducated domestic worker, who instilled the activist spirit in him.
“We were instructed to never capitulate, to never yield, to always resist oppression,” Belafonte told Yes! magazine.
Joining the resistance
During World War Two, those principles led him to join the Navy, which also provided stability after he dropped out of high school.
“The Navy came as a place of relief for me,” Belafonte told Yes! “… But I was also driven by the belief that Hitler had to be defeated … My commitment sustained itself after the war. Wherever I found resistance to oppression, whether in Africa, in Latin America, certainly here in America in the South, I joined that resistance.”
After the Navy, Belafonte worked as a janitor in an apartment building and as a stagehand at the American Negro Theater before getting roles and studying with Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier, another pioneering Black actor who would become a close friend.
He also appeared on Broadway in Almanac, winning a Tony Award, and in the movie Carmen Jones in 1954.
Belafonte’s third album, Calypso, became the first by a single performer to sell more than 1 million copies. Banana Boat, a song about Caribbean dock workers with its resounding call of Day O, made him a star. Surgery to remove a node on his vocal cords in the ’60s, however, reduced his voice to a raspy whisper.
In 1959, he began producing films and teamed with Poitier to produce Buck and the Preacher and Uptown Saturday Night. In 1984, he produced Beat Street, one of the first movies about break-dancing and hip-hop culture.
Belafonte was the first Black performer to win a major Emmy in 1960 with his appearance on a television variety special. He also won Grammy Awards in 1960 and 1965 and received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2000 but voiced frustration at the limits on Black artists in show business. In 1994, Belafonte was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Belafonte was married three times. He and his first wife Marguerite Byrd had two children, including actress-model Shari Belafonte. He also had two children with second wife Julia Robinson, a former dancer.