Harry Belafonte, the Legendary Actor, Vocalist & Activist, Has Died
Singer, songwriter and social activist Harry Belafonte photographed in 1970 (Jack Mitchell/Getty Images).
Legendary “Golden Age” actor, Calypso singer-songwriter, and activist Harry Belafonte has died. According to The New York Times, Belafonte, born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr., was found deceased in his Manhattan home. Having suffered from congestive heart failure, Belafonte was 96.
Born in Harlem, New York on March 1, 1927 to Jamaican immigrant parents, Belafonte was sent to his parents’ homeland at age 5, returning to New York for high school. Belafonte’s music would largely become rooted in Calypso and Caribbean sounds, as he’d break out in the 1950s with hits “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jump in the Line.”
Prior to becoming an artist and actor, Belafonte served in World War II, later studying theater alongside Sidney Poitier under the mentorship of Paul Robeson. Like Poitier, Belafonte’s early acting career began at Harlem’s American Negro Theater while he moonlighted as a nightclub singer.
Belafonte would become an accomplished singer on RCA Victor in the ‘50s, releasing his 1954 debut Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, 1956’s Belafonte and Calypso in the same year. The latter album would become the first LP to achieve one million sales, and in 2018, was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
Belafonte was just as accomplished onstage and in film, winning the 1954 Tony Award for Featured Actor – Musical (John Murray Anderson’s Almanac), also starring in Carmen Jones and Island in the Sun, both alongside Dorothy Dandridge. In 1960, Belafonte became the first Black performer to receive an Emmy for his special, Tonight with Belafonte, released the year prior.
Like Poitier, Belafonte would become a prominent voice during the Civil Rights Movement, supporting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two actors contributed financial support to the King family, also helping organize the 1963 March on Washington.
In his later years, Belafonte would remain politically outspoken, organizing the all-star song “We Are the World” and opposing the apartheid. Belafonte’s final studio album, 1988’s Paradise in Gazankulu, would tackle the South African plight under the apartheid system.
The following year, Belafonte would receive the Kennedy Center Honor, later given the National Medal of Arts in 1994, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Belafonte is among the few recipients of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.)
Belafonte, who returned to film after a decade-long hiatus in the 1960s, last starred in the 2018 Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman, which received an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.