- 26 Apr 23
The US president said Belafonte was a “groundbreaking American who used his talent and voice to help redeem the soul of our nation”.
Actor, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte has died aged 96 of congestive heart failure, his spokesperson confirmed, marking the end of an illustrious career.
Known for performing global hits like 'Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)', 'Man Smart (Woman Smarter)', 'A Hole in the Bucket' and 'Jamaica Farewell' in the 1950s and '60s, the Tony award winner also appeared in numerous feature films. Aside from his glittering entertainment work, Belafonte also dedicated his life to fight for causes close to his heart.
He bankrolled numerous 1960s initiatives to bring civil rights to Black Americans; campaigned against poverty, apartheid and Aids in Africa; and supported leftwing political figures such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
No one had ever sold one million copies of an album before Belafonte did it with Calypso in 1956. With his polished reinterpretations of traditional Caribbean songs, including ones from his parents’ home country of Jamaica, he enriched the mid-century folk revival. His unprecedented level of success helped open doors for generations of musicians, and particularly Black musicians, who came after him.
Figures including Joe Biden, rapper Ice Cube and Mia Farrow have paid tribute to Belafonte. The US president said Belafonte was a “groundbreaking American who used his talent and voice to help redeem the soul of our nation”.
“Harry Belafonte’s accomplishments are legendary and his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for dignity will endure forever,” Biden said on Twitter.
Jill and I are saddened by the passing of a groundbreaking American who used his talent and voice to help redeem the soul of our nation.
Harry Belafonte’s accomplishments are legendary and his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for dignity will endure forever.
— President Biden (@POTUS) April 25, 2023
"Harry Belafonte was a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up," former US President Barack Obama tweeted. "He lived a good life – transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style. Michelle and I send our love to his wife, kids, and fans."
Bernice King, daughter of Dr Martin Luther King, posted an image of Belafonte attending her father’s funeral. He "showed up for my family in very compassionate ways. In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings.” The Beninese-French musician Angélique Kidjo called Belafonte “the brightest star in every sense of that word. Your passion, love, knowledge and respect for Africa was unlimited.”
When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways.
In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings.
Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College.
I won’t forget…Rest well, sir. pic.twitter.com/31OC1Ajc0V
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) April 25, 2023
Belafonte was born in 1927 in working-class Harlem, New York, and spent eight years of his childhood in his parents’ native Jamaica. He came back to New York to attend high school but struggled with dyslexia and dropped out in his early teens. He picked up odd jobs working in markets and the city’s garment district, and then signed up to the US navy aged 17 in March 1944, working as a munitions loader at a base in New Jersey.
After the war ended, he worked as a janitor’s assistant, but aspired to become an actor after watching plays at New York’s American Negro Theatre (along with fellow aspiring actor Sidney Poitier).
He enrolled in acting classes, also attending the same course as Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau, and paid for them by singing folk, pop and jazz numbers at New York club gigs. At the time, he was backed by groups whose members included Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
His debut album was released in 1954, a collection of traditional folk songs. His second album, Belafonte, was the first No 1 in the new US Billboard album chart in March 1956, but its success was outdone by his third album the following year, Calypso, featuring songs from his Jamaican heritage. It brought the feelgood calypso style to many Americans for the first time, becoming the first LP to sell over a million copies in the US.
Lead single 'Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)' became a signature song for Belafonte, spending 18 weeks in the UK singles chart, including three weeks at No 2. His version of 'Mary’s Boy Child' was a UK chart-topper later that year, while Island in the 'Sun' reached No 3.
He released 30 studio albums, plus collaborative albums with Nana Mouskouri, Lena Horne and Miriam Makeba. The latter release won him one of his two Grammy awards; he was later awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy and the Academy’s president’s merit award.
Bob Dylan’s first recording – playing harmonica – was on Belafonte’s 1962 album, Midnight Special. In 1961, Belafonte was hired by Frank Sinatra to perform at John F Kennedy’s presidential inauguration.
In tandem with his music career, Belafonte won a Tony award in 1954 for his appearance in the musical revue show, John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. In the movie world, he secured the lead role in Island in the Sun with James Mason, Joan Fontaine and Joan Collins, with whom he had an affair.
He acted alongside Dorothy Dandridge twice, in Carmen Jones and Bright Road, but he rejected a third film, an adaptation of Porgy and Bess, which he found “racially demeaning”.
The musician and actor was later mentored by Martin Luther King Jr and Paul Robeson, and bailed King out of a Birmingham, Alabama, jail in 1963 as well as co-organising the march on Washington that culminated in King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Using his newfound wealth to fund various initiatives, he funded the Freedom Riders and SNCC - activists fighting unlawful segregation in the American south - and worked on voter registration drives.
Focusing on African freedom, Belafonte organised the all-star charity record We Are the World, raising more than $63 million for famine relief, and his 1988 album, Paradise in Gazankulu, protested against apartheid in South Africa. He was appointed a Unicef goodwill ambassador in 1987, and later campaigned to eradicate Aids from Africa.
Harry Belafonte talks about the period he came to support the Cuban Revolution and the broader anti-imperialist struggles across Africa and Asia. "Castro was not the first great leader of a movement that had been called a terrorist." pic.twitter.com/RBCv14Rfi9
— ☀️👀 (@zei_squirrel) April 26, 2023
A fierce supporter of leftwing politics, he criticised imperialist US foreign policy, campaigning against nuclear armament, and meeting with both Fidel Castro and Chavez - the former of whom became his personal friend.
At the meeting with Chavez in 2006, he described US president George W Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world”. He also famously compared Bush’s Black secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to slaves who worked in their master’s house instead of the fields.
He was a frequent critic of the Democratic Party, holding Barack Obama accountable for Guantanamo Bay detentions and the fight against rightwing extremism.
He criticised Jay-Z and Beyoncé in 2012 for having “turned their back on social responsibility", insinuating that they chose their class over race: "Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is Black.”
Jay-Z responded: “You’re this civil rights activist and you just bigged up the white guy against me in the white media...that was just the wrong way to go about it.”
In 2018, he appeared in the Spike Lee movie BlacKkKlansman. In 2014, 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen announced he was working with Belafonte on a film about Paul Robeson, which never came to fruition unfortunately.
He advocated for awareness of prostate cancer after recovering from the disease in 1996.
In 2013, Belafonte was honoured at the 44th NAACP Image Awards with the Spingarn Medal, the organisation’s award recognising the achievements of Black individuals.
The award has also been given to Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington and Oprah Winfrey, among others. After a heartwarming dedication from his friend Sidney Poitier, Belafonte spoke about the debate around gun reform, emphasising that the groups of people who had suffered the most yet remained largely absent from the conversation.
“A river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our Black children,” Belafonte said. “Yet, as the great debate emerges on the question of the gun, white America discusses the constitutional issue of ownership, while no one speaks of the consequences of our racial carnage.
“The question is: Where is the raised voice of Black America? Why are we mute? Where are our leaders, our legislators? Where is the church?” he asked.
He continued, echoing artist and activist Paul Robeson’s quote that “‘artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilisation’s radical voice.’”
Belafonte married Marguerite Byrd from 1948 to 1957 - with whom he had two daughters - activist Adrienne and actor Shari. He had two further children with his second wife, Julie Robinson: actor Gina and music producer David. He and Robinson divorced after 47 years, and in 2008 he married Pamela Frank, who survives him.
Take a look at more tributes from the entertainment and political world below.
Harry Belafonte was one of our favorite guest stars on The Muppet Show and a great friend to The Muppets. In his work on and off the stage, he helped us all to see one another clearly and truly turned the world around. We will never forget you, Harry! pic.twitter.com/euMQFDpvJj
— The Muppets (@TheMuppets) April 25, 2023
Harry Belafonte was a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up. He lived a good life – transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style. Michelle and I send our love to his wife, kids, and… pic.twitter.com/g77XCr9U5b
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) April 25, 2023
Thank you Harry Belafonte. Here he goes through his whole life in the most regal three minutes you'll see anywhere. From Harlem to the West Indies to the farmers in his family to serving in WWII to proving all the beauty of his exterior was matched with soul pic.twitter.com/I92pGcxNmb
— Harmony Holiday (@Harmony_Holiday) April 25, 2023
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) April 25, 2023
After dad was assassinated, Harry Belafonte joined me, mom, and my siblings in Memphis. He was one of the only people to make sure that mom and her children were taken care of in the months, days, and years after the assassination. He was there for us even when others had gone.
— Martin Luther King III (@OfficialMLK3) April 25, 2023
Thank you, Mr. B, for all of your years of mentorship, guidance, & lifetime of activism fighting for a better future for all of us. You will be missed by many, but your memory & impact live on. Rest in Power.
“Movements don't die, because struggle doesn't die.”
-Harry Belafonte pic.twitter.com/bCArTOtCC2
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) April 25, 2023
One of my faves — Ray, Michael, Stevie, Lionel, Diana, Dionne, Tina, Bruce, Al Jarreau, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Smokey, Lindsey Buckingham, Bob Dylan, and so many more giving Harry Belafonte his flowers with a surprise tribute during the We Are The World recording session 🥲 pic.twitter.com/MjCWS3CMoe
— Zara Rahim (@ZaraRahim) April 25, 2023
RIP to my dear brother-in-arms, Harry Belafonte. From our time coming up, struggling to make it in NY in the 50’s with our brother Sidney Poitier, to our work on “We Are The World” & everything in between, you were the standard bearer for what it meant to be an artist/activist.
— Quincy Jones (@QuincyDJones) April 25, 2023
Harry Belafonte was not only a great entertainer, but he was a courageous leader in the fight against racism and worker oppression. Jane and I were privileged to consider him a friend and will miss him very much. pic.twitter.com/TO2xrz0GJF
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 25, 2023
“I was an activist who became an artist, I was not an artist who became an activist.” - Harry Belafonte
Rest In Peace 🕊 pic.twitter.com/WUTTNi0GtW
— Nina Turner (@ninaturner) April 25, 2023