Harry Belafonte, activist and entertainer with a ‘rebel heart,’ dies at 96

Harry Belafonte, the dashing singer, actor and activist who became an indispensable supporter of the civil rights movement, has died, his publicist Ken Sunshine told CNN.

He was 96.

Belafonte died Tuesday morning of congestive heart failure, Sunshine said.

Belafonte was dubbed the “King of Calypso” after the groundbreaking success of his 1956 hit, “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” He also became a movie star after acting in the film adaption of the Broadway musical, “Carmen Jones.”

But Belafonte’s biggest contributions took place offstage. He was a key strategist, fundraiser and mediator for the civil rights movement. He continually risked his entertainment career – and at least once his life – for his activism. He became a close friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who often retired to Belafonte’s palatial New York apartment to talk strategy or escape the pressures of leading the civil rights movement.

A voracious reader with a burning disdain for injustice, Belafonte’s political consciousness was shaped by the experience of growing up as the impoverished son of a poor Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant.

Harry Belafonte addresses students at a primary school near Kenya’s capital Nairobi in 2004.

“I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’ ” he once said. “My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.”

The scope of Belafonte’s activism was astonishing. He saw the civil rights movement as a global struggle. He led a campaign against apartheid in South Africa, and befriended Nelson Mandela. He mobilized support for the fight against HIV/AIDS and became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He also came up with the idea for recording the 1985 hit song, “We Are the World,” which assembled a constellation of pop and rock stars, including Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, to raise money for famine relief in Africa.

Belafonte didn’t mellow as his wealth and fame grew. He drew criticism after calling President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” for leading an invasion of Iraq, and assailed Black celebrities such as Jay Z and Beyonce for not taking bolder stands on social justice. He criticized Barack Obama so much during the then Senator’s first presidential run in 2008 that Obama asked him, “When are you going to cut me some slack?”

“What makes you think that’s not what I’ve been doing?” Belafonte responded.

Belafonte’s hero and mentor

Harold George Belafonte Jr. was born March 1, 1927 in New York city to poor Caribbean immigrants. His father worked as a cook on merchant ships and abandoned the family when Belafonte was young. Belafonte also spent some of his boyhood in Jamaica, the former British colony and his mother’s native country, where he witnessed White English authorities mistreating Black Jamaicans. He returned to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood by 1940 to live with his mother, Melvine, who struggled to hold her family together amid grinding poverty.

“She was the one who taught him that you shouldn’t let the sun go down without fighting against injustice,” Judith E. Smith, author of “Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical,” says about Belafonte’s mother.

Dr. Martin Luther King and civil rights marchers in Alabama on March 24, 1965. With King were his wife, Coretta Scott King, right, and singer Harry Belafonte, at center beside Dr. King.

Belafonte had a tumultuous childhood and often had to fend for himself.

“The most difficult time in my life was when I was a kid,” he told a magazine interviewer. “My mother gave me affection, but, because I was left on my own, also a lot of anguish.”

Belafonte dropped out of high school and enlisted in the US Navy in 1944. He was relegated to manual labor on the ship and didn’t see combat, but the experience proved to be profound. He met college educated Black men who gave him a wider exposure to the world, talking to him about big issues such as segregation and colonialism. The experience of fighting against facism abroad while coming back to segregation at home angered Belafonte, much like many Black veterans from World War II.

He drifted into the entertainment field almost by accident. Belafonte was working as a janitor in New York when he attended a play at the American Negro Theater. He was so swept up by the performance that he decided to become an actor.

He eventually studied acting at a workshop attended by classmates such as Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and Bea Arthur. He also fell into singing in nightclubs – once in a band that included jazz greats Charlie Parker and Max Roach – and landed a recording contract in 1949.

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