Harry Belafonte, Calypso Singer and Activist, Dead at 96

Harry Belafonte performs in the first episode of The Bell Telephone Hour in 1958. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor, and activist who popularized Caribbean-style music on an international scale with his album Calypso and harnessed his fame to promote civil rights and humanitarian activism, has died at 96. His longtime spokesman Ken Sunshine confirmed the news to the New York Times on April 25. The cause was congestive heart failure.

Born in Harlem in 1927 to a Martinican father and a Jamaican mother, Belafonte spent his formative years growing up in both New York and the Caribbean. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to New York. While working as a janitor’s assistant, he was given tickets to a performance at the American Negro Theater. “It was there that the universe opened for me,” he later recalled in an NPR interview. He went on to study acting at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop alongside classmates like close friend Sidney Poitier. Belafonte made his film debut in 1953’s Bright Road. The following year, he won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. He continued to gain acclaim, starring in several other movies such as Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun, and Odds Against Tomorrow. He has been credited as the first African American television producer, and in 1960 became the first African American to win an Emmy for his show Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte.

His career in music was equally groundbreaking. Belafonte, who began as a club singer, achieved breakthrough global success with his 1956 album Calypso. With hit tracks like “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell” that featured influences from Caribbean folk music, Calypso became the first LP to sell more than a million copies. During the ’60s, Belafonte released two Grammy Award–winning albums, Swing Dat Hammer and An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.

A close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte was also a staunch civil-rights activist. He helped finance the 1961 Freedom Rides and worked with Sidney Poitier to organize the 1963 March on Washington. He protested for the end of apartheid in South Africa and came up with the idea for “We Are the World,” the Grammy Award–winning charity single that raised money for famine relief in Africa. In 1987, Belafonte was appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. In 2014, he became an EGOT winner by receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. “I really wish I could be around for the rest of this century, to see what Hollywood does with the rest of the century,” he said during his acceptance speech. “Maybe, just maybe, it could be civilization’s game changer.”

Harry Belafonte, Calypso Singer and Activist, Dead at 96