Harry Belafonte, a singer, actor and activist who popularised calypso music in the United States and paved the way for African-American entertainers, passed away at his Manhattan home. He was 96. Belafonte died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his New York home, his wife Pamela by his side, said Ken Sunshine, of public relations firm Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis. With his glowing, handsome face and silky-husky voice, Belafonte was one of the first Black performers to gain a wide following on film and to sell a million records as a singer; many still know him for his signature hit “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” and its call of “Day-O! Daaaaay-O.” But he forged a greater legacy once he scaled back his performing career in the 1960s and lived out his hero Paul Robeson's decree that artists are “gatekeepers of truth.”
He stands as the model and the epitome of the celebrity activist. Few kept up with Belafonte's time and commitment and none his stature as a meeting point among Hollywood, Washington and the civil rights movement. Belafonte not only participated in protest marches and benefit concerts, but helped organize and raise support for them. He worked closely with his friend and generational peer the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. often intervening on his behalf with both politicians and fellow entertainers and helping him financially.
He risked his life and livelihood and set high standards for younger Black celebrities, scolding Jay Z and Beyonce for failing to meet their “social responsibilities,” and mentoring Usher, Common, Danny Glover and many others. In Spike Lee's 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman,” he was fittingly cast as an elder statesman schooling young activists about the country's past.
Belafonte's friend, civil rights leader Andrew Young, would note that Belafonte was the rare person to grow more radical with age. He was ever engaged and unyielding, willing to take on Southern segregationists, Northern liberals, the billionaire Koch brothers and the country's first Black president, Barack Obama, whom Belafonte would remember asking to cut him “some slack.”
Belafonte responded, “What makes you think that's not what I've been doing?” Belafonte had been a major artist since the 1950s. He won a Tony Award in 1954 for his starring role in John Murray Anderson's “Almanac” and five years later became the first Black performer to win an Emmy for the TV special “Tonight with Harry Belafonte.”
In 1954, he co-starred with Dorothy Dandridge in the Otto Preminger-directed musical “Carmen Jones,” a popular breakthrough for an all-Black cast. The 1957 movie “Island in the Sun” was banned in several Southern cities, where theater owners were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan because of the film's interracial romance between Belafonte and Joan Fontaine.
His “Calypso,” released in 1955, became the first officially certified million-selling album by a solo performer, and started a national infatuation with Caribbean rhythms (Belafonte was nicknamed, reluctantly, the “King of Calypso?). Admirers of Belafonte included a young Bob Dylan, who debuted on record in the early '60s by playing harmonica on Belafonte's “Midnight Special.”
Belafonte was the rare young artist to think about the business side of show business. He started one of the first all-Black music publishing companies. He produced plays, movies and TV shows, including Off-Broadway's “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” in 1969. He was the first Black person to produce for TV. Belafonte made history in 1968 by filling in for Johnny Carson on the “Tonight” show for a full week.
In the 1970s, he returned to movie acting, co-starring with Poitier in “Buck and the Preacher,? a commercial flop, the raucous and popular comedy “Uptown Saturday Night.”
Meanwhile, in addition to his wife, Belafonte is survived by his children Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, Shari Belafonte, Gina Belafonte and David Belafonte; two stepchildren, Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank; and eight grandchildren.