Harry Belafonte, the iconic singer who became synonymous with calypso music and civil rights activism, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 96. Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem, New York in 1927. He spent his formative years in Jamaica with his mother before returning to the United States to complete high school and join the Navy during World War II. After his military service, Belafonte attended the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research alongside future Hollywood legends Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, and Sidney Poitier.
The “King of Calypso”
Belafonte’s smooth voice and elegant renditions of pop, jazz, and folk classics earned him a following in New York nightclubs, leading to a record contract with RCA Victor in 1952. He was urged by Black novelist and songwriter William Attaway to focus on vernacular and folk music, particularly expressions of the Black and Caribbean experience. Belafonte’s breakthrough came in 1956 with the release of the landmark album “Calypso,” which included his signature song “Day-O (Banana Boat Song).” The album spent 99 weeks on the charts, 31 of them at No. 1, and established calypso as an enduring component of American popular music. Belafonte was dubbed the “King of Calypso” and paved the way for a wave of folk acts that influenced artists like Jimmy Buffett, Alison Hinds, and David Rudder.
Civil Rights Activism
Belafonte’s social consciousness was shaped by his mentor Paul Robeson, and he became a force in the civil rights movement by the early 1960s. He campaigned for Senator John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign and became an intermediary between Martin Luther King Jr. and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Belafonte bailed King out of jail in Alabama in 1963 and supported a wide variety of civil rights causes throughout the 1960s. He was a main financier of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and flew to Mississippi to join the organization’s Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign in 1964. Belafonte became associated with King in 1956 and was appointed as the executor of King’s estate after his assassination in 1968.
Legacy and Honors
Belafonte’s activism often overshadowed his music, but he continued to perform and record throughout his life. He battled prostate cancer and became a prominent advocate for cancer research. Belafonte received numerous honors throughout his career, including the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Motion Picture Academy. Survivors include his third wife, Pamela Frank, three daughters, and a son. Belafonte’s legacy as a singer and civil rights activist will continue to inspire generations to come.
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