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Harry Belafonte Dies Aged 96

Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte passed away on Tuesday, April 25. Credit: Manfred Werner / Tsui / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor, and civil rights activist, died on Tuesday at the age of 96. Belafonte was well known for performing hit songs like Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), appearing in a number of feature films, and for spearheading activist causes.

According to his spokesman, Belafonte’s cause of death was congestive heart failure. He died at his home in New York.

He earned the moniker “The King of Calypso” for his role in introducing Caribbean music to a global audience during the 1950s. He also holds the distinction of being the first singer, across all genres, to sell a million records in a single year.

Celebrities pay tribute to Harry Belafonte

Several prominent figures voiced their admiration for the late singer, actor, and activist. “He was more than a singer, more than an actor and more than a man… Harry Belafonte will be missed,” said the American rapper Ice Cube.

Mia Farrow, an American actress, also paid tribute, saying “We have lost the great Harry Belafonte-beautiful singer, brilliant and brave civil rights activist, a deeply moral and caring man. Miss you already Harry.”

Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, posted a photo of Harry Belafonte at her father’s funeral on Twitter, expressing gratitude for his compassionate support. In a heartfelt tribute, she revealed that Belafonte generously paid for the babysitter who cared for her and her siblings during the service.

Early life

Born in 1927 to working-class parents in Harlem, New York, Belafonte spent eight years of his childhood in Jamaica, where his family lived in poverty. Upon returning to New York for high school, he faced challenges due to dyslexia, and eventually dropped out during his early teenage years.

To make ends meet, he took on various odd jobs in local markets and the garment district. At the age of 17, in March 1944, he enlisted in the US Navy and was stationed at a base in New Jersey, where he worked as a munitions loader.

Following the end of the war, Belafonte found work as an assistant to a janitor, but his true passion lay in acting, which was sparked by his attendance at plays presented by New York’s American Negro Theatre, in the company of fellow aspiring actor Sidney Poitier.

Belafonte pursued his acting dreams by attending classes, alongside future luminaries such as Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau. He financed his acting classes by performing folk, pop, and jazz music at club gigs in New York, where he was backed by accomplished groups featuring musicians like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

Music and acting

In 1954, he unveiled his first album, which comprised a selection of customary folk songs. His sophomore effort, simply titled Belafonte, reached the summit of the US Billboard album chart in March 1956, but its triumph was surpassed by his third record the subsequent year. Titled Calypso, it showcased tunes from his Jamaican roots and introduced the upbeat, lively calypso style to a vast number of Americans for the very first time. It went on to become the first album to sell over one million copies in the United States.

Belafonte’s most recognizable song was Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), which spent 18 weeks in the UK singles chart and peaked at No. 2. It was a traditional Jamaican song in the Calypso style but also with Mento influences.

Belafonte recorded 30 studio albums and also collaborated with Nana Mouskouri, Lena Horne, and Miriam Makeba. One of his collaborative releases with Makeba earned him one of his two Grammy awards. He was also presented with a lifetime achievement Grammy and the Academy’s president’s merit award.

He was also an accomplished actor. In 1954 he won a Tony Award for his performance in the musical revue show, John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. He appeared in several other films, perhaps most famously as one of the lead actors in Island in the Sun.


Later in life Belafonte took up a number of activist causes and funnelled some of his newfound wealth into various social initiatives.

He was mentored by Martin Luther King Jr and Paul Robeson. He bailed out the former from prison in 1963 and was a co-organizer of the march on Washington that concluded with King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

Later on, he shifted his focus towards several African initiatives. He orchestrated the all-star charity record “We Are the World,” which raised over $63 million for famine relief. In addition, his 1988 album “Paradise in Gazankulu” protested against apartheid in South Africa. He was designated as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1987 and campaigned to eliminate AIDS from Africa.

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