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”.
Harry Belafonte was a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up. He lived a good life – transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style. Michelle and I send our love to his wife, kids, and… pic.twitter.com/g77XCr9U5b
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) April 25, 2023
The official account for Sesame Street, too, shared Belafonte’s appearance on the show in 1981, singing ‘The Coconut-Counting Man’:
Today we honor and remember the life of our friend, Harry Belafonte. Take a moment with us to reflect and honor his legacy and enjoy this Sesame Street classic. pic.twitter.com/MwLJDc4kt5
— Sesame Street (@sesamestreet) April 25, 2023
Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show, described interviewing Belafonte as “one of the greatest honours and joys” of his career:
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) April 25, 2023
Quincy Jones, a long-time friend and collaborator, described Belafonte as “the standard-bearer for what it means to be an activist/artist”:
RIP to my dear brother-in-arms, Harry Belafonte. From our time coming up, struggling to make it in NY in the 50’s with our brother Sidney Poitier, to our work on “We Are The World” & everything in between, you were the standard bearer for what it meant to be an artist/activist.
— Quincy Jones (@QuincyDJones) April 25, 2023
Thank you, Mr. B, for all of your years of mentorship, guidance, & lifetime of activism fighting for a better future for all of us. You will be missed by many, but your memory & impact live on. Rest in Power.
“Movements don’t die, because struggle doesn’t die.”
-Harry Belafonte pic.twitter.com/bCArTOtCC2
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) April 25, 2023
When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways.
In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings.
Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College.
I won’t forget…Rest well, sir. pic.twitter.com/31OC1Ajc0V
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) April 25, 2023
— Patti LaBelle (@MsPattiPatti) April 25, 2023
After dad was assassinated, Harry Belafonte joined me, mom, and my siblings in Memphis. He was one of the only people to make sure that mom and her children were taken care of in the months, days, and years after the assassination. He was there for us even when others had gone.
— Martin Luther King III (@OfficialMLK3) April 25, 2023
Harry Belafonte was one of our favorite guest stars on The Muppet Show and a great friend to The Muppets. In his work on and off the stage, he helped us all to see one another clearly and truly turned the world around. We will never forget you, Harry! pic.twitter.com/euMQFDpvJj
— The Muppets (@TheMuppets) April 25, 2023
Harry Belafonte spent 96 years breaking down barriers, bridging divides, and standing up for what he believed. His art and activism changed America and the world forever. I’ll always be honored to have known him. pic.twitter.com/xQuOhdk2MH
— Bill Clinton (@BillClinton) April 25, 2023
I am deeply sad at the loss of my very dear brother – the great Harry Belafonte! His artistic genius, moral courage & loving soul shall live forever! God bless his precious family! pic.twitter.com/Tao5h6FMLh
— Cornel West (@CornelWest) April 25, 2023
Another brick in our fabric has risen, Mr. Harry Belafonte; 3-1-1927 – 4-25-2023)🙏was an American singer, activist, and actor. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) was the first million-selling LP by a single artist. Best known for “The Banana Boat Song”. R.I.P.😥Bootsy!!!🏆 pic.twitter.com/zEngkBSb0O
— Bootsy Collins (@Bootsy_Collins) April 25, 2023
Jill and I are saddened by the passing of a groundbreaking American who used his talent and voice to help redeem the soul of our nation.
Harry Belafonte’s accomplishments are legendary and his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for dignity will endure forever.
— President Biden (@POTUS) April 25, 2023
Harry Belafonte was a great man, a great talent, a lifelong powerful advocate for human rights & civil rights and a hero of the people. Rest in peace, comrade. pic.twitter.com/ayNoeIvFde
— Tom Morello (@tmorello) April 25, 2023
So sad to hear about the passing of the legendary Harry Belafonte. Through his work in television, music, film, and stage, he broke down barriers across the entire industry, and so many of us today are forever indebted to him ! So thank you, Mr. Belafonte, for your lasting impact… pic.twitter.com/FqSTCFaBMV
— Jennifer Hudson (@IAMJHUD) April 25, 2023
RIP to the iconic and legendary hero Harry Belafonte,,, Prayers and strength to your family. 🙏🏿 pic.twitter.com/iMzvDJz3wE
— FLAVOR FLAV (@FlavorFlav) April 25, 2023