Harry Belafonte, Multi-Talented Singer, Actor, Producer & Activist Passes Away at 96
An icon has passed on.
Harry Belafonte, an EGOT winner and civil rights trailblazer, has died at 96 at his home in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, his spokesman Ken Sunshine revealed to multiple outlets. His wife Pamela was by his side.
Belafonte, the Caribbean-American superstar whose “Day-O” gave Calypso music its first national smash hit, was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in November 2014 for his momentous impact. His music was a brilliant blend of traditional West Indian rhythms, jazz, and pop, which he explored over 30 albums, ultimately receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy from the Recording Academy in 2000. “Day-O” came from his 1956 album Calypso, which sat atop the Billboard pop list for 31 weeks. Calypso was the first LP to sell 1 million copies.
The legend’s skills were hardly limited to music; on the big screen, he was the rare Black matinee idol in the 1950s. He starred in 1957’s Island in the Sun, playing a politician named David Boyeur who was being pursued by a rich white woman, Mavis Norman, played by Joan Fontaine, something that had never happened in film before. Island in the Sun was controversial at the time—and it was also a big box-office success. Belafonte became the first Black actor to become a leading man and achieve major success in Hollywood. In 1959 alone, he financed and starred in two movies, Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow and director Ranald MacDougall’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Eventually, his rival (and friend) Sidney Poitier would become an even bigger star.
As Belafonte’s historic success across the music and film industries grew, it was his work as an activist that drove him. He was a major force during the 1950s Civil Rights movement, becoming a lifelong friend and supporter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., providing seed money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, becoming a major fundraiser not only for the SNCC but also Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Belafonte paid Dr. King’s bail bill, along with other Civil Rights activists, and joined Dr. King and millions of others in the March on Washington in 1963.
Belafonte was a major force for the nonprofit organization USA for Africa, which led to the mega-hit single “We Are the World,” sung by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, and more. Belafonte was the brains behind the 1986 human-chain campaign Hands Across America, which raised money for the poor in the United States. He was active in fighting to end apartheid in South Africa and helping to get Nelson Mandela released from prison. His passions and achievements go on. And on.
Needless to say, Harry Belafonte lived a singular, monumentally impactful life. During his acceptance speech for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, Belafonte summed up his efforts in his typical elegant, brilliant fashion:
“Tonight is no casual encounter for me. Along with the trophy of honor, there is another layer that gives this journey this kind of wonderful Hollywood ending. To be rewarded by my peers for my work for human rights and civil rights and for peace — well, let me put this way: It powerfully mutes the enemy’s thunder.”
Featured image: Harry Belafonte onstage during the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences’ 2014 Governors Awards at The Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center on November 8, 2014 in Hollywood, California.