Harry Belafonte, groundbreaking Calypso star and civil rights activist, dead at 96

Harry Belafonte, the singer and actor who used his fame as a Calypso sensation to advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes, has died at 96.

Belafonte’s classic songs include “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” “Jamaica Farewell” and “Jump in the Line.” His spokesman Ken Sunshine said the cause of death was congestive heart failure, per the New York Times. He died at his home in Manhattan.

Portrait of Harry Belafonte, actor and singer.

Early life

Belafonte was born March 1, 1927 in Harlem, New York City, the son of poor Caribbean immigrants. He spent several years of his childhood living in Jamaica with his grandmother, before returning to NYC in the 1940s.

“The most difficult time in my life was when I was a kid,” he would later tell People Magazine. “My mother gave me affection, but, because I was left on my own, also a lot of anguish.”

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

He dropped out of high school to join the Navy during World War II. After his service he returned to New York to pursue a career in theater. According to Biography, Belafonte studied theater alongside classmates like Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau. At the same time, he found success in music, becoming a popular jazz club act backed by musicians like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Breakthrough success

Belafonte won a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. He soon found success on film as well, starring in films like the musical Carmen Jones opposite Dorothy Dandridge.

He also helped popularize traditional Trinbagonian Calypso music to an international audience: his 1956 album Calypso was a huge hit, becoming the first LP to ever sell one million copies, and introduced his signature song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”

“That song is a way of life,” Belafonte later told The New York Times. “It’s a song about my father, my mother, my uncles, the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica.”

He also became the first Black person to win an Emmy for his 1959 special Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte.

Civil rights activism

Belafonte was known as the “King of Calypso,” but throughout his career he was equally as well-known as a lifelong activist.

He became good friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and was a vocal advocate of the US civil rights movement, participating in numerous protests and rallies. His mentor was fellow actor-turned-activist Paul Robeson.

“Paul Robeson had been my first great formative influence; you might say he gave me my backbone,” Belafonte later wrote in his memoir. “Martin King was the second; he nourished my soul.”

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