Harry Belafonte, the superstar entertainer who introduced a Caribbean flair to mainstream US music and became well known for his deep personal investment in civil rights, died Tuesday in Manhattan, his publicist said.
He was 96.
Born in Harlem to a Jamaican mother and a father from the French territory of Martinique, the calypso singer and actor spent part of his childhood in Jamaica before returning to New York, a binational upbringing that shaped his musical and political outlooks that saw him crusade for racial equality.
Belafonte’s calypso, the genre of Caribbean music that drew from West African and French influences, saw him skyrocket to fame in the midst of post-World War II prosperity and suburbanization.
His third album, entitled simply “Calypso” and released in 1956, became the first LP to sell more than one million copies in the United States. The album featured what became Belafonte’s signature song, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”
Based on a Jamaican folk tune, Belafonte sings with a Caribbean accent, “Stack banana ’til de morning come / Daylight come and we wan go home.” Belafonte scoffed at suggestions that the song was simply feel-good dance music, calling the track a rebellious take on workers who were demanding fair wages. Even in his early 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.
As the civil rights movement grew in momentum, Belafonte took on a trailblazing role that went far beyond moral support. He became a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. and personally opened his wallet to fund the cause.
“When people think of activism, they always think some sacrifice is involved, but I’ve always considered it a privilege and an opportunity,” he said in a 2004 speech at Emory University. Belafonte brought King and the Birmingham, Alabama pastor Fred Shuttlesworth to his New York apartment to plan out the 1963 campaign to integrate the notoriously racist southern city.
When King was thrown into a Birmingham jail, Belafonte raised $50,000 — nearly $400,000 in current value — to post his bail, at a time when the rise of pop music was bringing wealth and lavish lifestyles to many entertainers.
Despite his frequent criticism of American policies, Belafonte said the United States “offers a dream that cannot be fulfilled as easily anywhere else in the world” — but one that is only attainable through “struggle.