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Wednesday, 26 April 2023 08:37

Barrier-breaking singer and actor known for 'The Banana Boat Song' passes away at home.

By Bethany Minelle.

Harry Belafonte, the singer and actor who became a civil rights activist, has died at 96.

The Grammy, Emmy and Tony winning star died of congestive heart failure at his New York home on Tuesday, with his wife by his side, according to a spokesperson.

Reluctantly nicknamed "The King of Calypso", he was largely responsible for bringing Caribbean music to an international audience in the 1950s, and the first singer - in any genre -to sell a million records in a year.

His song Jump In The Line (Shake, Senora) had a recent resurgence, going viral on TikTok in 2020, and featuring in the 1988 film Beetlejuice, as did his signature song Banana Boat (Day-O).

One of the first black performers to gain a wide following on film, he starred in movies including Carmen Jones, Island in the Sun and Odds Against Tomorrow.

Just last year, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, becoming the oldest person ever to receive the honour.

Alongside his sparkling Hollywood career, he was a committed activist, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

More recently, he reached out to younger black celebrities, scolding Jay Z and Beyonce for failing to meet their "social responsibilities," and mentoring stars including singer Usher, rapper Common and actor Danny Glover.

Fittingly, Belafonte made an apt cameo appearance in Spike Lee's Oscar winning 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, playing an elder statesman schooling young activists about America's past.

Paying tribute to Belafonte on Instagram, Lee wrote: "May God Have My Dear Friend Harry Belafonte At A Peaceful Rest. We Are Losing Our Giants Left And Right. We Have To Celebrate Our Elders While They Are With Us."

Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr on 1 March, 1927, in Harlem, New York, he was sent to live with a grandmother in Jamaica aged five, where he stayed until he was bought home aged 13, at the start of World War II.

Joining the Navy after attending High School in New York, he served for almost two years as a munitions loader before being honourably discharged.

On his return to New York, he worked as a caretaker, and after being gifted a theatre ticket in return for some repairs, fell in love with the theatre.

He went on to train as an actor with the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research, with classmates including Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis.

Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an Oscar for best actor, went on to become a good friend, and Belafonte's work in both showbiz and politics would lead to friendships with friendships with people including Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Roosevelt and Fidel Castro.

Also a lover of jazz, he performed at clubs including the Blue Note and the Vanguard, and was backed for one performance by Charlie Parker and Max Roach.

Belafonte's first Broadway appearance in 1954 won him a Tony Award for his starring role in John Murray Anderson's Almanac.

Five years later, he became the first black performer to win an Emmy for his TV special Tonight with Harry Belafonte.

Appointed by President John F Kennedy, he served for five years in the Peace Corps, and decades later went on to become a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

Although he later became disillusioned with acting, he won numerous awards during his career, including the motion picture academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, a National Medal of Arts, and a Grammy for lifetime achievement.

He wrote later, in his 2011 memoir My Song, that winning a New York Film Critics Award in 1996 for his work as a gangster in Robert Altman's Kansas City was one of his proudest career achievements.

Married three times, he had four children, with three of them going on to become actors.

Belafonte leaves behind his wife, photographer Pamela Frank; his children Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, Shari Belafonte, Gina Belafonte and David Belafonte; two stepchildren, Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank; and eight grandchildren.

Tributes pour in for the legendary Belafonte

The first African-American president Barack Obama said Belafonte was a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up.

"He lived a good life – transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style. Michelle and I send our love to his wife, kids."

Martin Lurther the King's daughter Bernice King shared her gratitude to the late Belafonte. She wrote: "When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways. In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings. Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College. I won't forget…Rest well, sir."

Singer Gladys Knight shared: "I remember being at an awards show several years ago and both Harry and Sidney were backstage as I came from presenting, they both quickly got with me for a photo. I, as always, was honored to be in their presence and grateful they wanted to make sure we got a photo together. Both were amazing icons for justice and the arts. Men among men. RIP Harry, you were one of a kind."

SA President Cyril Ramaphosa said Belafonte, who was also a mentor of the iconic Miriam Makeba, holds a special place in the hearts of South Africans and many around the world for his outstanding talent and warmth of his personality and for his stand against apartheid whilst in the prime of his international career. 

"He was instrumental in sustaining the United Nations led cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa. He worked closely with South African artists including Miriam Makeba to ensure South Africa's struggle against apartheid remained in the international spotlight and agenda. He was an influencer of his time who spared no energy in supporting our liberation struggle and in campaigning for human rights in many other parts of the world. We will remember him as a hero and true friend of South Africa that we must celebrate during our National Orders ceremony and for many years to come."

Ramaphosa said that Belafonte was an influencer of his time, who spared no energy in supporting the liberation struggle and in campaigning for human rights in many other parts of the world.

"We will remember him as a hero and true friend of South Africa that we must celebrate during our National Orders ceremony and for many years to come, "the President said.