Harry Belafonte, a beloved performer of Caribbean folk music, actor, and advocate for civil and human rights, has passed away.
A representative for the family told The New York Times that congestive heart failure was the official cause of death.
Harry Belafonte lived to be 96 years old.
The mid-1940s, when Belafonte first experienced the thrill of live theater at a segregated venue in New York City, marked the beginning of a long and fruitful career in the entertainment industry. His most important job, however, was fighting for civil rights alongside his late comrades Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sidney Poitier; since then, he has won Grammy, Tony, and Emmy honors for his distinctive folk music and composition.
Harry Belafonte was never one to pass up a chance to use his artistic voice to bring attention to global problems.
Harry Belafonte remarked in 2015 that he uses these opportunities to speak in public “just in case there’s something someone needed to hear, and I was the embodiment of that information.” He was speaking at The Aspen Institute. I won’t have to lie awake at night worrying that I wasted a chance because I didn’t make the most of a given stage.
Being the son of Jamaican immigrants
On March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York, Belafonte was born to Melvin and Harold George Bellanfanti Sr. Jamaicans brought the Bellanfantis to America.
Harry Belafonte says he was up in a “ghetto inside a ghetto.” His neighborhood, made up of West Indian immigrants, was a little enclave within Harlem’s greater Black population.
After Belafonte’s parents split up in 1932, he moved to Jamaica to live with his grandmother. After moving back to the Big Apple in 1940, he enrolled at George Washington High School before dropping out to join the Navy and fight in WWII.
When he got back from the war, he sang in a club and cleaned apartments. One of the tenants offered him tickets to watch “Home is the Hunter,” a play by Samuel M. Kootz, at the American Negro Theater in December 1945. He was instantly captivated by the theater.
Harry Belafonte soon met Sidney Poitier while taking acting classes at the American Negro Theater, where he had previously volunteered as a stagehand.
Over the years, Belafonte and Sidney Poitier formed an unbreakable friendship.
Belafonte made his acting debut in the movie “On Shriver’s Row.” On the opening night of his debut performance, however, he became ill, necessitating Poitier’s understudy duties.
Helping out with Civil Rights Tasks
The late Paul Robeson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were Belafonte’s inspirations in the fight for civil rights.
At the age of seven, he saw the reality of his family’s financial situation after seeing his mother, Melvine, a dressmaker and house cleaner, return from work with barely enough money to pay the bills. She urged him to keep his eyes peeled for unfairness and to seize every opportunity to stand up to it.
According to Belafonte’s memoir “My Song: A Memoir,” published in 2011, Paul Robeson was a critic of US policy and connected the fight for civil rights for Black Americans in the US to the fight against Western colonialism in Africa. Robeson was also an artist and activist in his own right. As Belafonte reflected on Robeson’s impact on his life, he called him his “first great formative influence” and “backbone.”
His soul was “nourished” by Dr. King, he wrote.
Harry Belafonte’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement was felt even when he was unable to personally participate due to his acting and singing obligations.
Harry Belafonte took part in efforts to raise money for Dr. King’s bail and the subsequent Freedom Rides in 1963 when King was arrested and brought to the Birmingham jail for protesting segregation.
In 1964, at the height of Freedom Summer, John Forman, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, asked Belafonte for $50,000 to help fund protesters in Mississippi. In just three days, Belafonte and his companion Poitier raised $70,000 and risked being hunted by armed Klansmen as they made their way to Greenwood, Mississippi to hand over the funds.
One who has achieved prominence in show business
Harry Belafonte became a household name after starring as Joe in the popular 1954 film “Carmen Jones.” For his efforts, he was nominated for an Academy Award.
His acting and musical careers were both launched by that film. His CD “Calypso,” which featured Caribbean folk music, was published in 1956. One of the album’s tracks, “Banana Boat (Day-O),” achieved phenomenal success. It was the first time an album by a single artist has sold a million copies. In time, he became known as the “King of Calypso.”
According to Belafonte’s interview with The New York Times, “That song is a way of life.” This is a tribute to the men and women of Jamaica who make a living picking bananas and sugar cane.
In the decades to come, he would focus mostly on acting as a creative outlet in the entertainment industry. Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and “Buck and the Preacher” (1972) both featured him prominently. Two of his latter works, “White Man’s Burden” and “Bobby,” are on the murder of Robert F. Kennedy and were released in 2006.
One who opposes American foreign policy
Throughout his career, Harry Belafonte utilized his voice to protest injustices around the globe. Belafonte emerged as a leading figure in the anti-colonialism movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In the 1970s, Harry Belafonte started showing love for African musicians like Miriam Makeba, sometimes known as “Mama Africa.” They had a Grammy-winning collaboration in 1966 for Best Folk Recording. He put her in front of an American audience, which was essential in drawing attention to the plight of South Africans living under apartheid.
The US blockade of Cuba, according to Belafonte, “pleased the right-wing Cuban-American community in Miami.”
From the Cold War freeze on all connections with the Iron Curtain countries to the Vietnam War, he stated, “I opposed with nearly every tenet of US foreign policy.” and its aftermath to the backing of right-wing tyrants throughout Africa and Latin America. But the United States’ treatment of another island made me very angry; not Grenada, but Cuba. Still, Fidel Castro represented the heroic downfall of a corrupt regime and the pursuit of a socialist ideal in my mind.
Belafonte’s outspoken criticism of US foreign policy over the years has infuriated some in the US political elite.
Harry Belafonte has supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020.
I see in him a moral requirement. In a statement declaring his endorsement, Belafonte stated, “I think he symbolizes a particular sort of reality that is not usually reflected in the field of politics.”
Protest for civil liberties
Among the many humanitarian honors Belafonte received throughout his lifetime was the 2014 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also honored him for “outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes.” At that year’s Oscars, his good buddy Poitier gave it to him.
In recognition of his humanitarian work and dedication to pushing for human rights, the Cuban Council of State awarded Belafonte with the Friendship Medal.
Harry Belafonte was honored with the National Medal of the Arts in 1994. His work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador began in 1987.
Four of Harry Belafonte’s children, two of his stepchildren, and eight of his grandchildren are still alive.
Video on most famous songs of Harry Belafonte Watch Now
What is Harry Belafonte’s legacy?
Harry Belafonte will be remembered as a talented artist who used his fame to fight for equality and social justice. He was an important part of the civil rights movement and is still a respected voice on human rights and social justice problems.
Did Harry Belafonte ever win any awards for his work?
Yes, Harry Belafonte has won many awards for his work, including Grammy Awards, Emmy Awards, and a Tony Award.