Harry Belafonte, Pioneering Singer, Actor, and Civil Rights Leader, Dead at 96

Belafonte popularized Calypso music and was a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.

Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte, photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

    Harry Belafonte, the pioneering Calypso singer, actor, and civil rights leader, has died at the age of 96.

    According to The New York Times, Belafonte passed away on Tuesday from congestive heart failure.

    Born on March 1st, 1927 in Harlem, New York to Jamaican-American parents, Harold Bellanfanti, Jr. served in the Navy in World War II before becoming enamored with the stage while attending shows at the American Negro Theater with close friend Sidney Poitier. Eventually, he began performing at the venue after taking acting classes at The New School and won a Tony Award for the 1953 musical revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.

    Belafonte began his musical career performing in nightclubs as a way to afford his acting classes. In 1953, he signed a recording contract with RCA Victor and released his debut single, “Matilda,” ahead of his breakthrough album Calypso. The 1956 LP topped the Billboard album chart for 31 weeks and spawned hits like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”


    Simultaneously, Belafonte became the first Black actor to achieve success in Hollywood as a leading man after debuting with 1953’s Bright Road and starring in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones. He followed with a then-controversial role in Island in the Sun, which alluded to an affair between his character and a white woman played by Joan Fontaine.

    After starring in the 1959 films Odds Against Tomorrow and The World, the Flesh and the Devil, Belafonte became disenchanted with the roles that were being offered to him. This created an opening for Poitier to make a bigger name as a Black leading man in Hollywood.

    Belafonte then stepped back from acting and renewed his focus on music. His popularity led to numerous televised specials including Tonight with Belafonte, which made him the first Jamaican American to win an Emmy. In another nod to his star status, Belafonte was invited by Frank Sinatra to perform at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala. He used this success to introduce artists to American audiences, including South African singer Miriam Makeba, Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, and future legend Bob Dylan, who played harmonica on Belafonte’s 1962 album, Midnight Special.


    Though Belafonte’s commercial success waned in the 1960s with the British invasion of the US pop charts, he was recognized with Grammys for 1960’s Swing Dat Hammer and 1965’s An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. He continued appearing in TV specials and even guest hosted The Tonight Show in February 1968, interviewing guests like Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    The most defining part of Belafonte’s legacy, however, was his dedication to civil rights. He became a close confidant of Dr. King early in his career, and was one of the principal fundraisers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, he also provided and raised money to bail Dr. King and other civil rights protesters out of jail.

    In the 1980s, Belafonte helped organize a cultural boycott of South Africa as well as the Live Aid concert and recording of the multi-artist charity single “We Are the World” to raise funds for Africa. He was also appointed to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador in 1987.


    Belafonte was also a vocal critic of US foreign policy. He made public statements in opposition to the Cuba embargo and US attack on Grenada while praising Fidel Castro. In 1999, he met with Castro to ensure a place for hip-hop in Cuban culture.

    During the Bush administration, Belafonte criticized the president for the Iraq War and compared Secretary of State Colin Powell to a plantation slave who abandoned his principles to “come into the house of the master.” In 2006, Belafonte called Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” while meeting with President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez.

    Despite pushback against the outspoken statements, Belafonte was celebrated throughout his later years with a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, and a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2000. In 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to humanitarian causes.


    Just last year, Belafonte became the oldest living person to receive the Early Influence Award from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.