Tributes paid to singer and activist Harry Belafonte, dead at 96

Harry Belafonte – the calypso singer best known for his signature song ‘Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)’, as well as his civil rights activism – has died at the age of 96.

The veteran performer and civil rights activist passed away in his Manhattan home from congestive heart failure, as confirmed by spokesman Ken Sunshine to The New York Times.

Belafonte began his career in the late-1940s, where it’s believed that his first-ever live performance was backed by jazz legends Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. His debut album, ‘Mark Twain and Other Folk Favourites’, was released via RCA in 1954.

It was the release of his third studio album ‘Calypso’, however, that served as his breakthrough. Featuring ‘Day-O’ as its opening track, the album became his first to surpass one million sales.

Belafonte was prolific through to the early ’70s, releasing two albums a year on average. Of these, 1957’s ‘An Evening With Belafonte’ and 1961’s ‘Jump Up Calypso’ were both certified Gold by the RIAA. His 30th and final studio album, ‘Paradise in Gazankulu’, was released in 1988.

In addition to a lengthy career in music, Belafonte also spent time working as an actor. His starring role in 1957’s Island in the Sun was deemed controversial within the American south, due to its depiction of an interracial romance. It was banned from being shown in Memphis, and protests surrounding its screenings followed. Despite this, the film became number one at the box office. Belafonte’s final film role was a cameo in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee.

Belafonte dedicated much of his life to activism. The singer was a friend and confidant to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., participated in the Civil Rights Movement, worked as a goodwill ambassador to UNICEF and led the cultural boycott of South Africa in the 1980s in the wake of apartheid. He combined the two main aspects of his life in 1985, when he instigated the chart-topping charity single ‘We Are The World’ under the project name USA 4 Africa.

With the news of his passing has come a multitude of tributes from within the musical, cultural and political realms. Former United States President Barack Obama described the late Belafonte as “a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up”.

The official account for Sesame Street, too, shared Belafonte’s appearance on the show in 1981, singing ‘The Coconut-Counting Man’:

Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show, described interviewing Belafonte as “one of the greatest honours and joys” of his career:

Quincy Jones, a long-time friend and collaborator, described Belafonte as “the standard-bearer for what it means to be an activist/artist”:

View more tributes from the likes of President Joe Biden, Rage Against The Machine‘s Tom Morello, the children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and more below: