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Harry Belafonte, the civil rights and entertainment giant, dies aged 96

Belafone was the 1st African American to win an Emmy.

Harry Belafonte, the civil rights and entertainment giant, dies aged 96 in Manhattan, New York on Tuesday.

The legendary entertainer introduced a Caribbean flair to mainstream US music and became well known for his deep personal investment in civil rights.

Generations have heard “The Banana Boat Song” which he recorded in 1956, but what many people don’t realize is that he was a close friend to Martin Luther King Jr. and a major player in the civil rights movement.

He released his debut album in 1954, which was a collection of traditional folk songs.

Belafonte’s second album, Belafonte, was the first No 1 in the new US Billboard album chart in March 1956, but its success was outdone by his third album the following year, Calypso, featuring songs from his Jamaican heritage.

It brought the feelgood calypso style to many Americans for the first time and became the first album to sell more than a million copies in the US.

Belafonte was a huge part of organizing the song “We Are the World,” which won a Grammy Award in 1985 and raised a large sum of money for Africa.

He thrived a calypso craze in the U.S. with his music and blazed new trails for African-American performers.

Throughout his life Belafonte pushed hard for peace, opposing the US embargo with Cuba, and speaking up against various wars.

He backed leftwing political figures such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. 

Belafonte was not a fan of the George W. Bush presidency, particularly because of the Iraq War and took many political stances that he truly believed in.

He campaigned against poverty, apartheid and Aids in Africa. He also embarked on charitable activities on behalf of underdeveloped African nations.

Tributes pour in for the incredible musician and actor who has a life dedicated to the pursuit and improvement of human rights.




Early Life:

Belafonte was born in 1927 in working-class Harlem in New York and spent eight years of his childhood in his impoverished parents’ native Jamaica.

Belafonte returned to New York for high school but struggled with dyslexia and dropped out in his early teens. He took odd jobs working in markets and the city’s garment district

He signed up for the US Navy aged 17 in March 1944, working as a munitions loader at a base in New Jersey.

After the end of the war, he started working as a janitor’s assistant but aspired to become an actor after watching plays at New York’s American Negro Theatre, along with fellow aspiring actor Sidney Poitier.

He took acting classes – where his classmates included Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau – paid for by singing folk, pop and jazz numbers at New York club gigs, where he was backed by groups whose members included Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

Belafonte had been hired by Frank Sinatra to perform at John F Kennedy’s presidential inauguration.

Film Career:

Belafonte maintained an acting career alongside music, winning a Tony award in 1954 for his appearance in the musical revue show, John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.

He appeared in several films, most notably as one of the leads in Island in the Sun, along with James Mason, Joan Fontaine and Joan Collins, with whom he had an affair.

He was twice paired alongside Dorothy Dandridge, in Carmen Jones and Bright Road, but he turned down a third film, an adaptation of Porgy and Bess, which he found “racially demeaning”.

In 2018, he made an appearance in the Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman.

In 2014, 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen announced that he was working with Belafonte on a film about Paul Robeson, sadly it was not developed.

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