Calypso King Harry Belafonte Dies at 96

Singer and activist Harry Belafonte speaks during a memorial tribute concert for folk icon and civil rights activist Pete Seeger in New York on July 20, 2014. Belafonte died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his New York home. He was 96. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, file)
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The Hill- Harry Belafonte, known for popularizing Caribbean folk music, breaking down barriers and advocating for civil rights, has died. He was 96.

According to a spokesperson, Belafonte died in his home on Tuesday from congestive heart failure.

Born Harold George Belafonte, Jrin the Harlem district of New York on March 1, 1927, Belafonte was the son of Caribbean island emigrants. In the 1950s, the dashing singer burst to fame, despite the era of racial segregation, and his 1956 album “Calypso” sold more than a million copies.

The album’s hit song, “Day-O! (the Banana Boat Song),” is still recognizable today, with Belafonte’s husky voice belting out an a cappella “Day-O!” before easing into the flow of the Caribbean-inspired song. The success of the song dubbed him the “King of Calypso.”

By 1959, Belafonte was the most highly paid Black performer in history, according to the New York Times, with contracts for appearances in Las Vegas, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and at the Palace in New York.

But Belafonte would soon move from behind the microphone to in front of the camera.

In 1953, Belafonte became the first Black man to win a Tony Award on Broadway for his revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” Just six years later, he became the first Black producer to win an Emmy Award for “Tonight With Belafonte,” a CBS special that presented a history of Black American life through music. He also became close friends with Sidney Poiter, a groundbreaking Hollywood actor in his own right.

But Belafonte’s work would carry him past the hills of Hollywood and into the streets of the civil rights movement. A lifelong friend and supporter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte would help finance the start of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and fundraise for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

He would also provide bail money for King and other activists arrested for their demonstrations, according to the New York Times, and he participated in the 1963 March on Washington.

“I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’” Belafonte once said. “My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.”

But like many Black Americans at the time — famous or not — Belafonte was struck by the racism he faced every day.

Following the assassination of King, Belafonte sat down with the Washington Post to express his frustration over how most of his fans were white, despite his music having roots in the Black culture.

But it was the racist outage of others that undoubtedly infuriated him.

His role in the 1957 movie “Island in the Sun” generated outrage in the South for its suggestion of a romance between his character and Joan Fontaine’s. In the South Carolina Legislature, a bill was introduced that would have fined theaters for showing the film.

When he was in Atlanta for a benefit concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1962, Belafonte was refused service — twice — in the same restaurant. And times when he appeared on television with white female singers, such as Petula Clark in 1968 and Julie Andrews in 1969, threatened to cost him sponsors.

But Black Americans were also unhappy with Belafonte, with some crediting his success to his light skin tone. Others criticized him for marrying Julie Robinson, a white dancer and actress.

Still, Belafonte carried on. In the 1980s, he helped organize the Live Aid concert and the all-star recording “We Are the World,” to fight famine in Africa. In 1987, he became UNICEF’s good-will ambassador.

The singer would also express his opinions about political leaders at home — sometimes with harsh words. In 2002, he accused Secretary of State Colin Powell of abandoning his principles to “come into the house of the master.” In 2006, he called former President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.”

But his words weren’t just for Republicans; he also criticized former President Barack Obama.

“For all of his smoothness and intellect, Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they White or Black,” Belafonte said.

Still, he is remembered by many fondly for his songs and for his activism.

In a statement following his death, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said Belafonte “exemplified fearless activism.”

“Sharing his love for the arts, Mr. Belafonte played an instrumental role in bringing the music of Africa to other parts of the world,” Johnson said. “His contributions to the arts, indisputable. He possessed an infinite talent which truly surpasses all understanding of time and life and will be greatly missed.”

Bernice King, daughter of MLK Jr., honored her father’s friend in a tweet.

“When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways,” she tweeted. “In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings. Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College. I won’t forget…Rest well, sir.”

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump also paid tribute to Belafonte on Tuesday, calling him “a tireless activist, EGOT winner, and successful singer.”

“Through his extraordinary contributions, including his notable advocacy for human rights and social justice, he leaves an indelible mark on this world,” Crump tweeted. “Rest In Power, Mr. Belafonte.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton also said he was “heartbroken” by Belafonte’s death, calling him “a true mentor & friend.”

“I cherished the time he would give me & others to guide us & correct us,” Sharpton tweeted. “He was a history changing activist, a culture changing entertainer, & an unmatched intellectual. RIP & Power, Mr. B…”

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