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Barrier-breaking actor, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte passed away on Tuesday at age 96 inside his Upper West Side Manhattan home. Landing on the pop charts as a Black man in the highly segregated 1950s, Belafonte catapulted to national stardom as an unapologetic artist dedicated to justice.
Belafonte’s spokeperson, Ken Sunshine, described the cause of death as congestive heart failure, according to multiple news outlets including the New York Times and Politico.
Following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and other trailblazing Black musicians in a White-dominated industry, Harry Belafonte commanded the respect and admiration of his generation across racial boundaries as a young singer.
“Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell,” popular songs on his “Calypso” album, inspired nationwide interest in Carribean music. The album reached the top of the Billboard charts in 1956, staying there for 31 weeks. It was reportedly the first album by a single artist to sell over a million copies.
Bursting with charisma, charm and good looks, Belafonte became the first leading Black actor as well, paving the way for more mainstay performers like Sidney Poitier. Yet it was Belafonte’s passion for civil rights that eventually led to him leaving the music and film industry behind to focus full time on pursuing justice for Black Americans.
Born to West Indian immigrant parents in Harlem, NY, Belafonte soon found himself becoming friends with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. following his pivot to social justice in the 1950s.
Belafonte quietly helped fund the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From bailing out racial justice protesters to supporting Dr. King’s family after his 1968 assassination, Harry Belafonte continued his advocacy with a cultural boycott of Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
Never afraid to speak his mind, Belafonte called George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” in 2006 and compared the billionaire Koch brothers to the Ku Klux Klan during the 2013 campaign for New York Governor, when he supported Democrat Bill De Blasio.
Ultimately, he’s won numerous awards and honors, including: the Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2000 and the the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.
He appeared on film for the final time in Spike Lee’s BlacKKKansman in 2018, but his legacy remains timeless.
“About my own life, I have no complaints,” Harry Belafonte wrote in his autobiography. “Yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago.”