Harry Belafonte, activist and entertainer, dies at 96
Diplomat Times (NEW YORK)- Harry Belafonte, the civil rights and entertainment giant who began as a groundbreaking actor and singer and became an activist, humanitarian and conscience of the world, has died. He was 96.
Belafonte died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his New York home, his wife Pamela by his side, said publicist Ken Sunshine.
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.”
Belafonte stands as the model and the epitome of the celebrity activist. Few kept up with his time and commitment and none his stature as a meeting point among Hollywood, Washington and the Civil Rights Movement.
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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 Beyoncé 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.”
“Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it,” Dylan later wrote. “Harry was that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope that some of it rubs off on you.”
Belafonte befriended King in the spring of 1956 after the young civil rights leader called and asked for a meeting. They spoke for hours, and Belafonte would remember feeling King raised him to the “higher plane of social protest.” Then at the peak of his singing career, Belafonte was soon producing a benefit concert for the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that helped make King a national figure. By the early 1960s, he had decided to make civil rights his priority.
His early stage credits included “Days of Our Youth″ and Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Peacock,″ a play Belafonte remembered less because of his own performance than because of a backstage visitor, Robeson, the actor, singer and activist.
“What I remember more than anything Robeson said, was the love he radiated, and the profound responsibility he felt, as an actor, to use his platform as a bully pulpit,″ Belafonte wrote in his memoir. His friendship with Robeson and support for left-wing causes eventually brought trouble from the government. FBI agents visited him at home and allegations of Communism nearly cost him an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.″ Leftists suspected, and Belafonte emphatically denied, that he had named names of suspected Communists so he could perform on Sullivan’s show.
By the 1950s, Belafonte was also singing, finding gigs at the Blue Note, the Vanguard and other clubs — he was backed for one performance by Charlie Parker and Max Roach — and becoming immersed in folk, blues, jazz and the calypso he had heard while living in Jamaica. Starting in 1954, he released such top 10 albums as “Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites″ and “Belafonte,″ and his popular singles included “Mathilda,″ “Jamaica Farewell″ and “The Banana Boat Song,″ a reworked Caribbean ballad that was a late addition to his “Calypso″ record.
“We found ourselves one or two songs short, so we threw in `Day-O’ as filler,″ Belafonte wrote in his memoir.
He was a superstar, but one criticized, and occasionally sued, for taking traditional material and not sharing the profits. Belafonte expressed regret and also worried about being typecast as a calypso singer, declining for years to sing “Day-O″ live after he gave television performances against banana boat backdrops.
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. Later that year, a simple, spontaneous gesture led to another milestone. Appearing on a taped TV special starring Petula Clark, Belafonte joined the British singer on the anti-war song “On the Path of Glory.″ At one point, Clark placed a hand on Belafonte’s arm. The show’s sponsor, Chrysler, demanded the segment be reshot. Clark and Belafonte resisted, successfully, and for the first time a white woman touched a Black man’s arm on primetime television.
In the 1970s, he returned to movie acting, co-starring with Poitier in “Buck and the Preacher,″ a commercial flop, and the raucous and popular comedy “Uptown Saturday Night.” His other film credits include “Bobby,″ “White Man’s Burden,″ cameos in Altman’s “The Player″ and “Ready to Wear,″ and the Altman-directed TV series “Tanner on Tanner.″ In 2011, HBO aired a documentary about Belafonte, “Sing Your Song.”
Mindful to the end that he grew up in poverty, Belafonte did not think of himself as an artist who became an activist, but an activist who happened to be an artist.
“When you grow up, son,″ Belafonte remembered his mother telling him, “never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.″
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