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Harry Belafonte: A groundbreaking entertainer dies

Silke Wünsch
April 25, 2023

Harry Belafonte, one of the most successful Jamaican-American pop stars in history and a committed human rights activist, has died at the age of 96.

Harry Belafonte singing
His 1956 hit 'Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)' made him a musical icon at a young ageImage: Everett Collection/picture alliance

Singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte has died at the age of 96, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

He was not only known as the "King of Calypso" for having popularized the Trinidadian Caribbean music style around the world in the 1950s, but also as an advocate for political and humanitarian causes. An early supporter of theCivil Rights movement alongside Martin Luther King, Belafonte remained committed throughout his life to the struggle against racial discrimination, marginalization, hunger, and poverty.

A lifelong fight for justice

Belafonte was born in the New York district of Harlem to a sailor from the Caribbean island of Martinique and an unskilled worker from Jamaica. His father, who used to drink a lot, often beat his children — at times so badly that they ended up in the hospital. Finally, his father left the family, and his mother returned to the Caribbean with Harry and his siblings. Harry was given into the care of his grandmother with the following words: "Don't let a single day pass by without making use of opportunities to fight for justice."

Some years later, Harry Belafonte returned to New York, where he attended high school and dreamed of a career on stage. That, however, was particularly challenging in 1950s US, where racial segregation was still practiced, and people of color were not welcome in the limelight. But Harry refused to let himself be put off by that. He continued to prove his talent as an entertainer until he finally got a job in a renowned jazz club.

Harry Belafonte smiles showing the peace sign.
Harry Belafonte at a peace demonstration in Bonn in 1981Image: Klaus Rose/dpa/picture-alliance

Belafonte's steep career

Then things developed very quickly for Belafonte. After he got his first role in the movie The Bright Road in 1954, he made his breakthrough as an actor in "Carmen Jones" one year later. He followed that up with his first record contract. His song "Mathilda" was an instantaneous hit. His album "Calypso" was released in 1956 and sold more than a million copies — a huge and almost miraculous success, especially for a Black musician at that time.

From then on, Harry Belafonte was famous as the "King of Calypso." His single "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)" made him a musical icon at a young age.

Belafonte made use of his popularity to express his clear stance against racism and discrimination. In 1957, he shot the film "Island in the Sun," an interracial love story, which was controversial at the time. He also transgressed racial boundaries in real life by marrying a white woman.

Film still from Island in the Sun: an elegant interracial couple having a drink in a bar.
Breaking taboos: Harry Belafonte in 'Island in the Sun' from 1957 Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/picture alliance

Messenger for peace and justice

Harry Belafonte has always been more than just a good-looking singer with a soft voice who sold 150 million records and starred in numerous movies. Without worrying about the consequences it could have on his career, he continued to advocate human rights, struggling for minorities like African-Americans and Native Americans, as well as against apartheid in South Africa, the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Resulting from his continued commitment to the fight against poverty and hunger in the world, he was appointed as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1987.

Many lifetime achievement awards followed, including the National Medal of the Arts in 1994.

In 2017, for his 90th birthday, Belafonte released "When Colors Come Together," an anthology of some of the singer's earlier recordings.

He also remained committed to political causes throughout his life, including as the honorary co-chair of the Women's March on Washington, a protest that took place the day after the Inauguration of Donald Trump as president in January 2017. Belafonte actively campaigned against Trump's reelection in 2020.

"In the past, we have turned the wheel in great bursts of energy and faith, and in between, when we stood exhausted and bloodied, there was some sliding back," the then 93-year-old activist wrote in a New York Times op-ed in November 2020. "That is always how it is in a democracy and a people's movement, but now is the time to move forward again."

This article was originally written in German.