Harry Belafonte, the legendary Jamaican-American singer, songwriter, actor, and activist known for his contribution to Caribbean music, his humanitarianism, and civil rights activism, passed away on Tuesday, 26th April 2023, at his New York home. He was 96 years old, and his wife Pamela was with him when he passed away due to congestive heart failure, according to his representatives.
Belafonte was a trailblazer in the music industry, breaking barriers and establishing his place in the industry. In March 2021, he celebrated his 94th birthday with a star-studded virtual party that raised money for The Gathering for Justice, a social justice organization he founded in 2005. The event, called The Gathering for Harry, featured entertainers, religious and political leaders, and activists such as Common, Danny Glover, Chuck D, Bernie and Jane Sanders, Stacey Abrams, Aloe Blacc, Tamika D. Mallory, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Jackie Cruz.
Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem, New York, on March 1, 1927. His mother was Jamaican, and his father was from Martinique, with two white grandparents. He spent his childhood traveling between Jamaica and New York City.
After a short stint in the Navy, Belafonte began his recording career in 1949 and worked his way through the New York City club scene. Though he started as a jazz act and later a pop singer, he started performing folk music in 1950. His star was on the rise, according to a 1996 New Yorker article. He expanded his talents to the silver screen, breaking racial barriers in critically acclaimed hits like Carmen Jones, which co-starred Dorothy Dandridge. He also won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway musical Almanac.
In 1956, Belafonte released Calypso, which topped the Billboard charts and sold more than 1 million copies, earning him the nickname “King of Calypso.” The album contained timeless hits such as “Day-O (Banana Boat Song),” a traditional Jamaican folk song that would become Belafonte’s signature track. Belafonte’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009.
Belafonte was not just a musician; he was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry and an activist for civil rights and humanitarian causes. In 1968, he became the first Black person to host a late-night TV show when he assumed hosting duties on The Tonight Show. Belafonte’s guests included civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy.
Belafonte’s activism continued throughout his life. He advocated for the Anti-Apartheid Movement, USA for Africa, and other political and humanitarian causes. In 1987, he became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Belafonte received numerous accolades, including a National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1994, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy in 2000, and the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award for his efforts to assist Africa from Africare in 2002.
Belafonte’s impact on the music industry, entertainment industry, and activism will be remembered for generations to come. He survived by his wife, Pamela Frank, children Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, Shari Belafonte, David Belafonte, and Gina Belafonte, as well as two stepchildren Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank. He also has eight grandchildren.
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