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Harry Belafonte, singer, actor and activist, has died at age 96

A 1976 portrait of the singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte. He died Tuesday at age 96.
AFP/Getty Images
A 1976 portrait of the singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte. He died Tuesday at age 96.

Singer, actor and human rights activist Harry Belafonte died Tuesday at age 96 of congestive heart failure. He broke racial barriers and balanced his activism with his artistry in ways that made people around the world listen. Belafonte, who was an EGOT holder for his Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, died at his home in New York, his publicist announced.

Style, class and charisma: That was Harry Belafonte as a performer. In the 1950s, his recordings for RCA Victor, which included his iconic version of the Jamaican folk song "Day-O" (also known as "The Banana Boat Song") set off a craze for calypso music. With his good looks and his shirt unbuttoned to his chest, audiences — Black and white — adored Belafonte at a time when most of America was still segregated.

Belafonte was born in Harlem. His parents were from the Caribbean; his mother was Jamaican, and his father was from the island of Martinique. His mother, who was a cleaning lady, took him back to her native Jamaica, where he absorbed the island's culture.

The singer told NPR in 2011 that his recording of "The Banana Boat Song" was inspired by the vendors he heard singing in the streets.

"The song is a work song," he said. "It's about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid. They're begging for the tallyman to come and give them an honest count: 'Count the bananas that I've picked so I can be paid.' When people sing in delight and dance and love it, they don't really understand unless they study the song — that they're singing a work song that's a song of rebellion."

And that song of rebellion was a smash. The album Calypso was a bestseller, holding a spot at the top of Billboard's then newly created album charts for several weeks in 1956.

Years earlier, Harry Belafonte dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. After serving in World War II, he was working as a janitor's assistant when someone gave him tickets to a performance at the American Negro Theatre. He was riveted.

He started training there, alongside Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. He also started singing in clubs. Pretty soon, he had a recording contract.

In 1954, he won a Tony Award for a revue called "John Murray Anderson's Almanac: A Musical Harlequinade." He starred in movies and appeared on TV variety shows. In 1959, he was given a one-hour show on CBS. Called The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte, the program had dance numbers, folk songs, and both Black and white performers. The program won an Emmy Award — the first for an African American.

Revlon asked him for more shows. According to Belafonte, CBS stations in the South complained about its integrated cast. In interviews, he said he was asked to make it all-Black. He says he refused, and left the show.

Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most trusted friends. In 1963, he helped organize the Freedom March on Washington, where King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech.

Clarence Jones, who helped draft that speech, told NPR's Fresh Air in 2011 that it was Belafonte who explained to them how to use the power of television. "He said," Jones recalled, "'You have to look at this as a media event, not just as a march.' And so, for example, Harry was responsible for assembling what was called the 'celebrity delegation,' a lot of celebrities from Hollywood and performing artists. And he was very firm that they should sit in a certain strategic part on the podium, because he knew that the television cameras would pan to them, would look to them. And so he wanted to be sure that they were strategically situated, so that in looking at the celebrities, they'd also see a picture of the march and the other performers."

When Dr. King was held in a Birmingham jail, Belafonte raised money to bail him out. Coretta Scott King wrote in her autobiography, "Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide-open."

His relationship with the King family later turned rocky after Belafonte filed a lawsuit against King's estate in 2013 over the fate of three documents that the civil rights leader had given him, and which Belafonte tried to auction off in order to fund nonprofit work; the family claimed that the singer and actor had "wrongfully acquired" the documents. Belafonte and the estate settled out of court the next year, with Belafonte retaining the materials.

Throughout his career, Belafonte received numerous honors for his humanitarian work and the arts. He also helped organize Nelson Mandela's first trip to the U.S. after he was released from prison.

He was also an outspoken critic of people in power, including President Barack Obama, whom he once chastised for not showing enough concern for the poor. He singled out African American artists Jay-Z and Beyonce, telling an interviewer they've "turned their back on social responsibility." Jay-Z responded on his track "Nickels And Dimes": "Mr. Day-O, major fail." The two men eventually made up.

Harry Belafonte was an activist into his 90s. He told NPR in 2011 that was something he learned from his mother.

"She was tenacious about her dignity not being crushed. And one day, she said to me — she was talking about coming back from a day when she couldn't find work. Fighting back tears, she said, 'Don't ever let injustice go by unchallenged.'"

As his good friend Sidney Poitier once put it, Belafonte was an "invaluable energy force" and "always a gutsy guy."

Harry Belafonte is survived by his wife, Pamela Frank; four children; two stepchildren; and eight grandchildren.

Edited by: Anastasia Tsioulcas

Audio story edited by: Rose Friedman, Gerry Holmes

Audio story produced by: Kelli Wessinger

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.