Harry Belafonte, Groundbreaking Singer, Songwriter and Activist, Dies at 96

A Smithsonian curator reviews Belafonte’s legacy, from breaking racial barriers in the entertainment industry to 70 years of civil rights activism

Harry Belafonte
A 1960 portrait of Harry Belafonte  (C) Herschel Levit, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Harry Belafonte, the beloved musician, entertainer and champion of civil rights, died Tuesday at 96 in New York City.

Belafonte skyrocketed to fame in the 1950s, bringing his signature Caribbean-infused melodies to audiences nationwide on television programs including "The Ed Sullivan Show" on CBS. His album Calypso, released in 1956, became the first album by a single artist to sell 1 million copies and spent 31 weeks atop the Billboard charts. Its breakout hit, “The Banana Boat Song” (also known by its iconic opening call, "Day-O") vaulted Belafonte into an unprecedented level of attention. As detailed by Bruce Britt for Andscape, ""Banana Boat Song' now ranks in the Grammy Hall of Fame with other quintessential recordings, including Duke Ellington’s 'Take the ‘A’ Train,' George Gershwin’s 'Rhapsody in Blue,' Woody Guthrie’s 'This Land is Your Land' and more." 

By 1959, Belafonte was the highest paid Black American performer in history.

Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)

“Belafonte’s popularity drew upon his charisma as an artist and activist,” says Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. “He brought a keen intelligence and tenacity in his performances and public appearances that kept audiences mesmerized.”

His success on stage did not stop with music, and he became a regular face in Hollywood. He snagged prominent roles in feature films, including 1957's Island in the Sun, in which the mere suggestion of an interracial relationship with a character played by white actress Joan Fontaine sparked controversy in the American South; some states even tried to ban the movie from playing in local theaters.

Born in 1927 to a working-class Caribbean immigrant family in living in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, Belafonte had a tumultuous, violent childhood, absorbing beatings from his father. He spent eight years of his young life in his mother’s native country, Jamaica, but came back to the States to attend high school. 

After struggling in school due to his dyslexia, Belafonte dropped out and joined the Navy at 17 in 1944. According to Hillel Italie of the Associated Press, Belafonte discovered the works of Black writers including W.E.B. Du Bois while serving abroad, which he later described as his initial political education. When he returned to the United States, he found it ironic that while he was fighting fascism across the world he had come back to a country plagued by Jim Crow laws and segregation. 

In the years following his service, Belafonte worked as a janitor’s assistant. When he stumbled upon a play at the American Negro Theater, he decided to pursue performing, and his life changed forever. His first album, a collection of traditional folk songs that hit the market in 1954, was inspired by the time he spent in Jamaica as a child. 

“His greatest contribution to popular music was to ensure that audiences understood how the sounds of today are rooted in African American cultural expression,” says Reece. Even though Belafonte’s success in the arts put his name on the map, his priorities soon focused elsewhere.

Before anything else, Belafonte considered himself a civil rights activist, modeling his career on that of the outspoken singer Paul Robeson, says Reece. Over time, Belafonte developed a close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., with the two regularly confiding in and supporting each other. Belafonte bailed King out of jail in Birmingham, Alabama, where the latter wrote his famous letter.

That friendship strengthened the cause. With Belafonte's help, the March on Washington became a reality. By that point as big a star on the national stage one could find, Belafonte would later recall that his goal was to have celebrities march arm in arm with the average citizen. He succeeded on that end, with other notable Americans of all races joining the march, including close friend Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Rita Moreno and Charlton Heston. “We had to seize this opportunity and make our voices heard. Make those who are comfortable with our oppression—make them uncomfortable,” Belafonte told Smithsonian magazine’s Michael Fletcher on the march's 50th anniversary in 2013. Dr. King said that was the purpose of this mission.”

When King was assassinated in 1968, a life insurance policy purchased by Belafonte assisted King’s family. “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open,” Coretta Scott King wrote in her 2005 memoir.

In the 1980s, Belafonte turned his focus globally, marshalling forces for the global music sensation "We Are the World," which benefited starving communities in Africa, and fighting apartheid in South Africa, eventually developing a bond with African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. In 1987, he became UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador. Belafonte frequently shared his support and criticism for politicians, and even briefly toyed with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate. 

Up until his death, Belafonte was a consistent supporter of the civil rights movement, and he never stopped promoting “radical thinking.” He criticized celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé for what he saw as a lack of activism, and he sharply criticized President George W. Bush's military campaigns, calling him “the greatest terrorist in the world.” During the 2008 presidential campaign, he notably poked at then-Senator Barack Obama, per the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb.

“When are you going to cut me some slack?” said Obama. Belafonte replied, “What makes you think that’s not what I’ve been doing?”

In 2000, Belafonte won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But above all, his hope from the March on Washington stuck with him years after the iconic protest and continued to fuel his vision for a better America.

“That’s the America that I believe in, and that’s the America that we need to reveal and by its presence here today—there need be no ambivalence,” Belafonte told Smithsonian. “We just need to stay the course and keep revealing the deeper truth of who we are as a nation and as a people.'”

His death on Tuesday in his home on Manhattan's Upper West Side was a result of congestive heart failure, according to his spokesperson. 

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