Harry Belafonte, who became a superstar after bringing calypso music into the mainstream and who was at the forefront of humanitarian efforts across the globe for several decades, has passed away, reports CNN. He was 96.
Ken Sunshine, Belafonte’s longtime spokesperson stated that his cause of death was due to congestive heart failure.
Many celebrities to took to social media to pay tribute to Belafonte including acclaimed actor Jeffery Wright.
"Harry Belafonte was a standard bearer, in the tradition of Robeson, for generational artistry and deeply informed & committed social & political engagement," Wright's tweet read. "Maybe the last of a great tribe. As smart as he was knockdown handsome. He met the moment throughout his life. What a man. RIP"
Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in New York’s Harlem, in 1927, his father, Harold George Bellanfanti Sr. was a Martinique-born chef, and his mother Melvine Bellanfanti was a Jamaica-born housekeeper. From age 8 until he was a teenager, he lived with his mother in Jamaica. Eventually, he returned to the U.S. for high school then he served in the Navy during World War II.
Drawn to acting, Belafonte attended the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research on the G.I. Bill. His classmates included Sidney Poitier, who would become one of his closest friends, along with Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau.
To pay for his acting classes, Belafonte began singing at local clubs throughout New York. For his first live performance, he was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included jazz luminaries Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis.
In 1956, Belafonte released his breakthrough album Calypso which became the first LP "to sell over 1 million copies within a year" and the first to sell over a million copies albums in England. His "Banana Boat Song" (also known as "Day-O") reached number five on the pop charts and went on to be his signature song.
While known primarily for calypso music, Belafonte’s discography spans several genres including folk, blues, show tunes, gospel and American standards.
As an actor, he starred in Tonight With Belafonte, a nationally televised special that featured Odetta, an acclaimed folk singer. In 1959, he won an Emmy for Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte I, becoming the first Jamaican American to win the prestigious award. He also appeared in several TV specials and was the guest host on numerous occasions on The Johnny Carson Show.
On the big screen, he appeared in dozens of films including the classic Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun, Odds Against Tomorrow, The World, Buck and the Preacher, Uptown Saturday Night and many others. In 1984, Belafonte produced and scored the musical film Beat Street, one of the first feature films about the rise of hip hop culture. His last film appearance was in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman in 2018.
Throughout his expansive career, Belafonte embodied the artist/activist motif. He was one of the most prominent Black celebrities actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. He was a close confidant and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King and paid for his funeral.
Later on in his life, Belafonte was an advocate of humanitarian causes, such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement and USA for Africa which was the impetus of the classic charity song “We Are The World.” Since 1987, he served as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and was named the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.
An EGOT, Belafonte is the winner of an Oscar, three Grammy Awards (including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), an Emmy Award and a Tony Award. In 1989, he received the Kennedy Center Honors and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994. In 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy's 6th Annual Governors Awards; and in 2022, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category. Belafonte was the oldest living person to have received the honor.
We at EBONY extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Harry Belafonte.