Harry Belafonte, the renowned singer, songwriter, and actor, passed away at the age of 97 due to congestive heart failure. Belafonte was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry and used his talent to advocate for political and social change.
From Calypso to Civil Rights
Belafonte rose to fame in the 1950s with hit songs such as "Day O" and "Jamaica Farewell." As an African-American leading man, he tackled racial themes in films and later joined forces with Martin Luther King Jr.
during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. He recorded several live albums at Carnegie Hall and served as a UNICEF ambassador, advocating for the rights of black people in Africa and against apartheid. "Harry Belafonte’s accomplishments are legendary and his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for dignity will endure forever," said President Biden in a tweet.
Born in Harlem, New York, Belafonte drew strength from his mother, an uneducated housekeeper, who instilled in him a spirit of activism. He became known as the "King of Calypso" for his musical abilities and was the first African-American to perform in upscale nightclubs and break barriers in film.
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
In 1954's "Island in the Sun," Belafonte's character entertained the idea of a relationship with a white woman, which sparked controversy and threats to burn down theaters in the American South. In the 1960s, Belafonte campaigned with Martin Luther King Jr.
and in the 1980s, he worked to end apartheid in South Africa and facilitated Nelson Mandela's first visit to the US. In 2012, he sparked controversy by criticizing Jay-Z and Beyoncé for turning their back on social responsibility, but the couple responded by defending their actions.
A Humanitarian at Heart
Belafonte was a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and later launched a foundation to fight AIDS. In 1987, he traveled the world on behalf of UNICEF, and in 2014, he received an Oscar for his humanitarian work.
He provided the inspiration for "We Are The World," a 1985 all-star collaboration that raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia and featured superstars such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross. "A lot of people ask me, 'When did you decide to become an activist as an artist?'" said Belafonte in a 2011 interview with National Public Radio.
"I tell them, 'I was an activist for a long time before I became an artist.' " Belafonte was a pioneer in the entertainment industry, winning a major Emmy in 1960, Grammy Awards in 1960 and 1965, and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2000.
Despite his success, he expressed frustration with the limitations faced by black artists in show business. In 1994, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. An anthology of Belafonte's music was released to mark his 90th birthday in 2017, and he told Rolling Stone magazine that singing was a way for him to express injustices in the world. Harry Belafonte's legacy as a singer, political activist, and humanitarian will endure forever.