Renowned civil rights activist and singer Harry Belafonte has died at the age of 96 from congestive heart failure.
Belafonte, the son of Jamaican immigrants, was a trailblazing figure in both the music industry and the civil rights movement and his death marks the end of a remarkable and radical life.
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,” 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.
The New York Times reported, “Harry Belafonte, who stormed the pop charts and smashed racial barriers in the 1950s with his highly personal brand of folk music, and who went on to become a dynamic force in the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 96.”
In the 1950s, Belafonte became the first artist in recording history to have a million-selling album with the calypso craze. He was also the first African-American musician to win an Emmy. However, it was his involvement in the civil rights movement that truly cemented his legacy.
Belafonte was a close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. He was deeply committed to fighting racism and used his platform to raise awareness about issues affecting the Black community.
In a 2011 interview at the Sundance Film Festival, Belafonte spoke about his life’s work, including his mentor Paul Robeson, the power of music in political change, and his close relationship with Dr. King.
His life was the subject of a documentary called “Sing Your Song,” a film that unearths his significant contribution to and his leadership in the civil rights movement in America and to social justice globally.
“Going into the South of the United States, listening to the voices of rural Black America, listening to the voices of those who sang out against the Ku Klux Klan and out against segregation, and women, who were the most oppressed of all, rising to the occasion to protest against their conditions, became the arena where my first songs were to emerge,” Belafonte said.
Belafonte’s impact on both the music industry and the civil rights movement cannot be overstated. He leaves behind a legacy of activism and artistry that will continue to inspire generations to come.
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