Harry Belafonte Dies: Iconic Actor, Singer, and Human Rights Activist Was 96

Actor and singer Harry Belafonte attends the 'Sing Your Song' Photocall during of the 61st Berlin Film Festival at the Grand Hyatt on February 12, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Harry Belafonte, a legendary actor, singer, producer, and civil rights trailblazer, died Tuesday morning of congestive heart failure, his publicist said. He was 96.

Belafonte passed away at his home with his wife Pamela by his side, Paula M. Witt of public relations firm Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis confirmed to Urban Hollywood 411.

Known globally for both his artistic efforts and humanitarian work, Belafonte was one of the first Black performers to gain international fame.

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Harold George Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927. Overwhelmed and intimidated by the tough streets of New York, his immigrant mother sent him to live in Jamaica, the island of her birth. Belafonte grew up in Jamaica and sang folk music in nightclubs and theaters.

At the start of World War II, his mother brought him back to Harlem. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served for almost two years as a munitions loader. After his tour of duty ended, he was honorably discharged and returned to New York City where he worked both in the garment center and as a janitor’s assistant.

His interest in theater continued and he joined the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research under renowned German director, Erwin Piscator.

With classmates that included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis, Belafonte became thoroughly immersed in the world of theater.

Carmen Jones (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
Carmen Jones (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

In 1954, he won a Tony Award for his starring role in John Murrary Anderson’s Almanac. Five years later, he won an Emmy for the TV special Tonight with Harry Belafonte.

Among his early movie roles was the groundbreaking 1954 film Carmen Jones alongside Dorothy Dandridge. The modern version of the Bizet opera featured an all-Black cast.

His 1957 movie Island in the Sun was banned in several Southern cities amid protests against the film’s interracial romance between Belafonte and Joan Fontaine.

He played a bank robber opposite a racist partner (Robert Ryan) in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Years later, he had roles in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) and the Emilio Estevez-directed historical drama Bobby (2006).

Belafonte’s album Calypso was released in 1955, and was credited as the first LP to sell over a million copies. The album featured the hit “Day-O,” and prompted national interest in Caribbean rhythms, gaining Belafonte the nickname the “King of Calypso.”

Harry Belafonte Calypso Album (Credit: RCA Victor)
Calypso had record sales (Credit: RCA Victor)

Belafonte was also instrumental in bringing the music of Africa to the forefront, including artists such as Miriam Makeba, with whom he won a Grammy Award for their 1965 joint album, An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba.

For decades Belafonte fought for civil and human rights. He met a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the early ’50s. He became a confidant of King’s and a financial backer of numerous social causes, including the anti-Apartheid Movement, equal rights for women, juvenile justice, climate change and the decolonization of Africa.

Belafonte was one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington and led a delegation of Hollywood stars.

Disturbed by war, drought, and famine in Africa, Belafonte, along with manager Ken Kragen directed the project known as USA for Africa which spawned the all-star single, “We Are the World,” recorded on Jan. 28, 1985.

Harry Belafonte fought for Civil Rights and humanitarian causes. (Credit: Facebook)
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Belafonte was at the forefront of the movement to end the oppressive apartheid government of South Africa and strongly advocated for the release of his friend, Nelson Mandela after 27 and a half years of incarceration.

In the last two decades, he founded the Gathering For Justice in 2005 to end child incarceration and eliminate racial inequities in the justice system, and co-founded Sankofa.org with his daughter Gina Belafonte and Raoul Roach in 2015, to educate, motivate, and activate artists and allies in service of grassroots movements and equitable change.

Belafonte was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to be the cultural advisor for the Peace Corps.

In 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, earning him EGOT status.

In 1989, he was recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors for excellence in the performing arts.

He was honored at the White House with the 1994 National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton.

In 2017, the Harry Belafonte 115th Street Library was dedicated, which is located one block from where he grew up in Harlem.

In 2021, he was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by decree of the President of the Republic of France.

Belafonte’s final honor was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in November 2022, when he received the Early Influence Award.

In addition to his children Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, Shari Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, David Belafonte, and two stepchildren Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank, he leaves behind eight grandchildren: Rachel Blue Biesemeyer, Brian Biesemeyer, Maria Belafonte McCray, Sarafina Belafonte, Amadeus Belafonte, Mateo Frank, Olive Scanga, and Zoe Frank.