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Harry Belafonte, A Boundary-Pushing Singer, Actor, and Activist, Passed Away at The Age of 96


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Harry Belafonte, a charismatic performer, actor, and activist pivotal in the fight for civil rights, has passed away. He was 96. Sunshine said Belafonte passed away from congestive heart failure on Tuesday morning.

Harry Belafonte, A Boundary-Pushing Singer, Actor, and Activist, Passed Away at The Age of 96_

After the unprecedented popularity of his 1956 song, “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” Belafonte has crowned the “King of Calypso.” After starring in the film version of the Broadway musical “Carmen Jones,” he also gained fame in the cinema industry.

However, Belafonte’s most significant contributions occurred behind the scenes. He played an important role in the civil rights struggle as a mediator, fundraiser, and strategist. He routinely jeopardized his fame and fortune for his causes and, on at least one occasion, his life. Belafonte became a friend of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who frequently visited his lavish New York City apartment to plan the civil rights movement and relax from its demanding leadership role.

Belafonte’s political consciousness was formed by his upbringing as the penniless son of an impoverished Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant. He was a voracious reader with a burning scorn for injustice.

He once commented, “I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When did you decide as an artist to become an activist?’ ” In answer to your inquiry, I was an activist for many years before I even picked up a paintbrush. They’re mutually beneficial, especially activism.

Belafonte’s activism spanned a wide spectrum. He envisioned the fight for civil rights as a worldwide phenomenon. Together, he and Nelson Mandela waged a battle to end apartheid in South Africa. With his efforts, he was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and helped rally public opinion in the battle against HIV/AIDS. To aid in famine assistance in Africa, he also conceived of the idea to record “We Are the World,” which became a worldwide phenomenon in 1985 and featured a who’s who of pop and rock musicians like Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen.

Despite his increasing popularity and fortune, Belafonte never softened. After President George W. Bush led an invasion of Iraq, he was labeled “the greatest terrorist in the world” by some. He criticized Jay Z and Beyonce, and other black celebrities for not speaking out more forcefully for social justice. When Obama, then a Senator, heard how harshly he had condemned the candidate, he questioned, “When are you going to cut me some slack?”


“What evidence do you have that I haven’t been doing that?” After being prompted, Belafonte gave his response.

On March 1, 1927, in New York City, Harold George Belafonte Jr. was born to working-class parents from the Caribbean. When Belafonte was young, his father left the family to become a cook on merchant ships and never looked back. Some of Belafonte’s childhood was spent in Jamaica, a former British colony and the country of his mother’s birth. There, he saw firsthand how White English officials mistreated Black Jamaicans. By 1940, he had moved back in with his mother, Melvine, in Harlem, New York, who was doing her best to keep the family together despite the neighborhood’s extreme poverty.

“She was the one who taught him that you shouldn’t let the sun go down without fighting against injustice,” Judith E. Smith, author of “Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical,” says of Belafonte’s mother.

Throughout his rocky upbringing, Belafonte was frequently left to fend for himself.

“The most difficult time in my life was when I was a kid,” he told the journalist for the magazine. To quote the author: “My mother gave me affection but also a lot of anguish because I was left alone.”

In 1944, Belafonte left high school to join the United States Navy. He was stuck doing menial tasks on the ship and never got to experience the thrill of battle, yet even that proved invaluable. Meeting Black males with advanced degrees broadened his perspective on the world and exposed him to complex topics like racism and colonialism. Like many other Black World War II veterans, Belafonte was infuriated by the contrast between his experience fighting fascism abroad and the segregation he faced upon his return home.

He entered show business seemingly by chance. One night while working as a janitor in New York City, Belafonte decided to check out a show at the American Negro Theater. The show so moved him that he resolved to pursue a career in acting.

In the end, he decided to attend an acting workshop, where he met people like Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Bea Arthur. In 1949, he signed a recording contract after discovering his talent as a nightclub singer, performing with jazz greats such as Charlie Parker and Max Roach.

Belafonte radiated stage presence and commanded the microphone with ease. He was the first African American to receive an Emmy Award for his variety show in 1959 and a Tony for his Broadway playing.

Like Belafonte, Paul Robeson was looking for a way to combine his advocacy with his career. The African-American film and stage actor was a renaissance man, a star athlete, and an Ivy League-educated scholar who became an outspoken critic of US foreign policy and a supporter of civil rights. As a result of his efforts during the McCarthy era, Robeson was eventually blacklisted.

When asked about Robeson, Belafonte said he used him as a “moral compass.”

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Mr. Robeson represented the songbird to me. When he declared, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth,” he helped his fellow creatives see the gravity of their vocation. We are the outspoken leaders of modern society.

Another influential Black leader with whom Belafonte became acquaintances was Martin Luther King Jr. King frequently took flights to New York to meet with key advisors and gather funds for the organization. A call to Belafonte during one trip was received with, “We’ve never met, so you may not know who I am.”

After hearing King speak at a church in New York, the two men retreated to a basement room to continue their conversation.

Belafonte said, “It was just us at a card table with straight-back chairs.” Almost four hours were spent on something that was only meant to take a few minutes. His bravery, ingenuity, and sense of purpose impressed me. After that, I decided to marry him.

The friendship that Belafonte shared with King was essential. Belafonte risked his fame, reputation, and career to support the civil rights cause. He solicited donations for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In addition to organizing the March on Washington in 1963, Belafonte helped bail out individuals arrested during civil rights campaigns.

More than just his career was on the line at times. When actor friends Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier went to Mississippi in 1964 to help with voter registration, they brought $70,000 in a doctor’s bag. Belafonte claims the Ku Klux Klan pursued and shot at the two before presenting the cash in person.

The King family also benefited from Belafonte’s assistance. While King was away, he arranged for housekeepers and babysitters to be paid for by him. And he bought a life insurance policy for the civil rights leader, which became a major source of income for the family after King’s murder.

“Whenever we got into trouble or tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open,” Coretta Scott King later wrote in her memoir.

Belafonte also became a close friend of King’s. The outline for King’s famous 1967 address criticizing the Vietnam War was written at Belafonte’s Upper West Side apartment, where King frequently stayed.

King was a private man who rarely showed his emotions in public. However, Belafonte is frequently seen beside King in the photographs that show him smiling widely and uninhibitedly, often hugging him and sharing a private joke. In a wonderful video posted to YouTube, King tells Belafonte a joke as he fills in as host of “The Tonight Show.”

However, Belafonte did more for King than offer moral support. Miller, author of “Becoming Belafonte,” claims that King looked to him for counsel and strategy.

Miller claims that Belafonte “was already a radical” who was “thinking about how Black liberation should unfold.” He was no stranger to meetings where “what should you do to organize?” was discussed. “How do you bring about change?”

Belafonte’s identity as a radical was vital to who he was. He started using a cane, and his formerly silken singing voice had dwindled to a sad whisper as he aged. But he never lost his desire for revolutionary change or his movie star good looks. The NAACP’s highest distinction, the Spingarn Medal, was bestowed upon him in 2013. During his acceptance speech, he argued that “radical thought” was lacking in the modern fight for freedom.

A nation like America “has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices at the helm of any such quest,” he remarked.

Before being awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, Belafonte was honored with the Kennedy Center Honor in 1989 and the National Medal of Arts in 1994. After being influenced by Robeson himself, he turned around and became a mentor to other artists.

Proudly, he wrote, “We have never had so many White allies, wailing to stand together for freedom, for honor, for a justice that frees us all in the end….” about the racial protests that erupted across the United States in the summer of 2020 following the killing of George Floyd.

In 2016, a group of Black kids approached Belafonte in Harlem and asked whether he was still searching for anything.

What I’ve been seeking: Where does the rebel heart live? Belafonte shot back. We will always be preoccupied with material things and titles if we don’t have a rebellious spirit and the people who understand that no price is too high to pay to get back what we’ve lost.

Belafonte was always full of defiance. He had everything he needed to be happy being the King of Calypso: good looks, money, and fame. But he went in a different direction. He was really helpful behind the scenes.

His wife Pamela, his four children Adrienne, Shari, Gina, and David, two stepchildren Sarah and Lindsey Frank, and eight grandkids survive him.

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