Harry Belafonte Remembered as a Trailblazer in Music, Film and Activism

Superstar entertainer Harry Belafonte, who introduced Caribbean flair to mainstream American music and became famous for his deep personal investment in civil rights, died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 96 years old.

The barrier-breaking artist-activist died of heart failure at his New York home, his publicist said in a statement.

Born in Harlem to a Jamaican mother and a father from the French region of Martinique, the calypso singer and actor spent part of his childhood in Jamaica before returning to New York – a biracial upbringing that shaped his musical and political outlook, and saw him campaign tirelessly for racial equality.

Belafonte’s calypso, a style of Caribbean music that drew from West African and French influences, skyrocketed him to fame amid post-World War II prosperity and suburbanization.

Their third album, titled “Calypso” and released in 1956, became the first LP to sell over one million copies in the United States.

The album featured what would become Belafonte’s signature song, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” – he scoffed at the idea that it was just feel-good dance music, writing the track to those demanding fair wages. Called a rebellious move on the workers.

Belafonte “used his platform in an almost subversive way because he would sneak out there messages, revolutionary messages,” crooner John Legend said Tuesday at a Time magazine event.

“While people thought he was singing about good times and the islands, he always had a message of protest and revolution in everything he did.”

The legend was one of many, from all walks of American life, to send tributes; Singers, politicians and activists lauded Belafonte’s talent, advocacy and pioneering contributions.

Progressive Senator Bernie Sanders wrote, “Harry Belafonte was not only a great entertainer, but a courageous leader in the fight against racism and labor oppression.”

– ‘Conflict’ –

Even early in his career, Belafonte did not shy away from controversy.

He starred in the 1957 film “Island in the Sun” as an upwardly mobile black politician on a fictional island who becomes involved with a woman from the white elite in one of Hollywood’s earliest depictions of interracial romance. goes.

In 1954, he became the first African American person to win a Tony Award for his role in the Broadway musical “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac”.

Six years later, he became the first African American to win an Emmy Award for his musical television program “Tonight with Belafonte”. He also won three Grammys and a Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But her life’s work went far beyond performing, with both her music and acting playing a supporting role to her activism.

“When people think of activism, they always think that there is some sacrifice involved, but I have always considered it a privilege and an opportunity,” she said in a 2004 speech at Emory University.

He opened his fortune to support the civil rights movement by becoming close to Martin Luther King Jr.

Belafonte brought the civil rights leader along with pastor Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham, Alabama, to his New York apartment to plan a 1963 campaign to integrate the notoriously racist Southern city.

When King was thrown into the Birmingham jail, Belafonte raised $50,000—about $500,000 in current value—to post his bail.

King once said, “Belafonte’s global popularity and his commitment to our cause is a vital component to a powerful strategic weapon in the global struggle for freedom and the civil rights movement.”

King’s daughter, Bernice, posted a photo of a crying Belafonte sitting with her mother, Coretta, at the slain activist’s funeral on Tuesday.

“When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed so much kindness to my family,” she wrote.

“I will not forget … rest, sir.”

– ‘game changer’ –

Harold George Belenfanti Jr. was born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York.

As a child, he moved to Jamaica with his mother and younger brother, and has described his Jamaican roots as shaping “almost everything” in his life.

Belafonte did not grow up believing that he would enjoy a promising career.

He had vocal gifts and attractive looks, but suffered from dyslexia and dropped out of high school to serve in the US Navy during World War II. When he returned, he worked as a janitor.

At one point, he received a tip for two tickets to the American Negro Theatre, which inspired him to take acting classes.

He then met Sidney Poitier, born just eight days before Belafonte, to parents in the Bahamas; The actor would become a lifelong friend.

Despite his frequent criticism of American policies, Belafonte said that the United States “offers a dream that cannot be easily accomplished anywhere else in the world” – but one that can only be achieved through “struggle”. can be done.

Beyond Belafonte’s involvement in the civil rights movement, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps, a soft-power initiative to promote American causes abroad.

But Singer said he wants the program to also expose young Americans to struggles in the developing world.

Belafonte spent much time in Africa, particularly Kenya, and became one of the first American artists to fight apartheid in South Africa.

Their album “Paradise in Gazankulu”, released in 1988, revolved around the oppression of black South Africans and was partly recorded in Johannesburg with local artists.

Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo said, “Your passion, love, knowledge and respect for Africa was limitless.” “Your wisdom made me strong. Your music inspired me.”

Belafonte also initiated the USA for Africa supergroup, whose song “We Are the World” raised millions of dollars for Ethiopia’s famine victims in 1985.

He is survived by his wife, Pamela, four children and two step-children, and eight grandchildren.

Accepting an award in Hollywood in 2014, Belafonte said the entertainment industry had a sorry past record on race, but offered hope for the future.

“I really wish I was around for the rest of the century to see what Hollywood does with the rest of the century,” he said.

“Maybe, just maybe, this could be a game-changer for civilization.”

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(This story has not been edited by News18 staff and is published from a syndicated news agency feed)