Harry Belafonte broke through barriers in the 1950s. He topped the music charts. Belafonte represented the Black experience as an actor. And he used his fame to stand up for . Belafonte marched with Martin Luther King Jr. On April 25, the musical hero died at age 96.
Belafonte was born in New York City in 1927. He spent his early years in Jamaica, later moving back to New York. Belafonte’s daughter Gina said moving wasn’t easy. “He had a hard time fitting in,” she once told News-O-Matic. Belafonte didn’t finish high school. “But he never stopped learning,” his daughter added.
Belafonte joined the U.S. Navy in 1944. After his time in the navy, Belafonte returned to New York. He studied at an acting school. Belafonte appeared in plays. He won a Tony Award in 1954 for his part in a musical! The actor starred in movies as well. Belafonte’s biggest break came from music, though.
Belafonte put out a hit album called Calypso in 1956. On the record, Belafonte sang Caribbean folk songs. You may know one from the album: “Day-o, day-o. Daylight come and me want go home.” This tune, “The Banana Boat Song,” was a beloved radio hit. But “many forget who the song is about,” said Gina Belafonte. “This is a song speaking to the labor of working people,” she explained. In the song, workers are happy to stop hauling bananas and rest.
By the late 1950s, Belafonte was one of the best-known Black entertainers. And he used his fame to stand up for causes he believed in. “My father was the lead organizer of artists to participate in the March on Washington in 1963,” Gina Belafonte explained. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech there. Belafonte gave a speech too. He said people should be equal. “Human experience has no color,” Belafonte told the crowd.
Belafonte risked his career “in service of ,” said Gina Belafonte. In the movie Island in the Sun, Belafonte played a man who loves a white woman. Some theaters refused to show the film. Officials didn’t want to show a movie about couples.
Belafonte never stopped standing up for his beliefs. In the 1960s, he spoke out against in South Africa. He met with leaders about the issue. In the 1980s, Belafonte organized a song called “We Are the World.” It raised money to fight hunger in Africa. Some of the most popular musicians in the world, including Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, sang together. The album sold over 20 million copies.
Gina Belafonte described her dad as having “a great sense of humor.” She added that he “always treated people with dignity and respect.” She summed up her father’s life in a few words: “being of service to those in need.”
Another daughter had something to say about Belafonte’s passing. Bernice King is the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. She posted a message online. “When I was a child, Harry Belafonte showed up for my family,” she said. “In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me,” King added. “I won’t forget. Rest well, sir.”
Updated April 25, 2023, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Ryan Cramer and Alexa Tirapelli