Ayyyeee… What’s Goodie Everyone. So I got some news to report and it involves Harry Belafonte.
Harry Belafonte, the singer whose dynamic a cappella shout of “Day-O!” from “The Banana Boat Song” and other music from world folk traditions propelled him to international stardom, and who used his entertainment fortune to help bankroll the civil rights movement at home and human rights causes worldwide, died April 25, 2023 at his home in Manhattan. He was 96. The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his spokesman Ken Sunshine.
Belafonte was born to Jamaican immigrants, grew up in poverty in Depression era Harlem and became a major Black crossover success in popular music. He went on to smash a series of barriers during five decades as a movie, TV and stage star. His artistic and humanitarian work frequently overlapped, reflecting his belief that “the role of art isn’t just to show life as it is but to show life as it should be.”
Belafonte spent years as a liaison between the civil rights movement and the entertainment capitals of Hollywood and New York City. He also used his clout to promote the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and famine relief through efforts such as the “We Are the World” recording and concerts in 1985.
Belafonte once said he spent his life “in a constant state of rebellion.” He sharply rebuked American presidents Democrats and Republicans as not doing enough to end squalor in the United States or end conflicts abroad. He criticized George W. Bush’s White House over the 2003 invasion of Iraq and created a furor when he likened Colin Powell, also of Jamaican parentage and secretary of state at the time, to a “house slave.”
He also was critical of the nation’s first African American president, saying that “for all of his smoothness and intellect, Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they White or Black.” Providing fuel to his detractors, Belafonte associated himself with oppressive left-wing leaders such as Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
“I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist,” Belafonte liked to say. “I was an activist who’d become an artist.”
A year after the film industry’s Production Code lifted its ban on showing interracial sexual relationships in movies, Belafonte played the love interest of the White actress Joan Fontaine in “Island in the Sun” (1957). In that potboiler, a film he later disavowed as too tame, he was publicized as the first Black matinee idol for mainstream audiences. He was the first Black man to win a Tony Award on Broadway, for his interpretation of American and Caribbean folk music in the 1953 revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” Six years later, he was the first African American producer to receive an Emmy Award, for “Tonight With Belafonte,” a CBS special that presented a history of Black American life through music.
He was a recording star. His 1956 album “Calypso” sold more than 1 million copies making him a brief rival to Elvis Presley on the pop music chart and generating worldwide interest in Caribbean-flavored music. “There had never before been any singer that popular with White middle-class audiences as well as Black audiences,” the cultural critic and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. said in an interview. “In that sense, he was an agent of change, the musical voice of civil rights.” Using music to espouse universal brotherhood, Belafonte encouraged audiences to sing along to calypso, protest and chain-gang songs, the ballad “Danny Boy,” and the Hebrew folk song “Hava Nagila.”His voice, while classically untrained, was deeply affecting and capable of great range. A Time magazine critic noted that it “can become gutty as a trumpet, musky with melancholy, or high and tremulous as a flute. It may take on the high, clipped inflection of the West Indies, the open throated drawl of the bayou country, the softly rounded burr of the Scotch borderland.”
Survivors include His wife Pamela Frank, two daughters from his first marriage, the actress and model Shari Belafonte and Adrienne Biesemeyer; two children from his second marriage, the actress Gina Belafonte and David Belafonte; two stepchildren, Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank; and eight grandchildren.
Credit: The Washington Post, New York Times.