Harry Belafonte Dead: Legendary Calypso Singer & Civil Rights Activist Dies At Age 96

The ‘King of Calypso’ is dead. Harry Belafonte, the iconic Jamaican-American singer and prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, has died.

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One of the greatest voices that this world was blessed to know was silenced on April 25. Harry Belafonte, a Harlem, New York native who would popularize the Calypso genre of music with songs like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora),” and more, passed away at age 96. The news of Harry’s death was confirmed to the New York Times by his spokesman, who confirmed that the cause of death was congestive heart failure.

Born Harold George Belafonte, Jr. on March 1, 1927, to emigrants from the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Jamaica, Harry spent his first few years in Harlem. When his mother returned to Jamaica in 1935, he joined her and lived there until 1940. He left high school to serve in the U.S. Navy in the mid-1940s, and returned to New York City after his service was completed, per Britannica. While studying drama at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop, Harry began his career as a singer with nightclub gigs. In 1950, he shifted his focus from pop to folk, singing Caribbean folk songs that helped bring Calypso to the mainstream American audience. His breakthrough album, 1956’s Calypso, became a worldwide smash. While he earned the title of “King of Calypso,” Harry recorded music in various genres, including folk, blues, and gospel. Throughout his seven-decade career, he ultimately released 30 studio albums and eight live albums.

Harry Belafonte in concert, January 1981 (AP)

Harry made his Broadway debut in the 1950s, appearing in the musical John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. He won a Tony Award for supporting actor for his appearance. Harry made his film debut in 1953’s Bright Road. He also landed roles in Carmen Jones (1954) and Island In The Sun (1957). His dissatisfaction with the type of roles offered to him led Harry to focus on music in the 1960s and early 1970s. He returned to acting with Buck and the Preacher and Uptown Saturday Night.

Along with his Grammy and Tony awards, Harry won an Emmy for the 1959 TV special, Tonight with Belafonte. Harry also received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989, the National Medal of arts in 1994, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.

Though Harry earned his place in pop culture with his vibrant and spiritual music, he secured his place in history with his activism. An early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Harry was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Throughout his career, he was an advocate of humanitarian and political causes, like the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the USA for Africa, and the ACLU.

Dr. Martin Luther King rejoins his civil rights marchers near Montgomery, the Alabama State Capitol, on March 24, 1965. An Army observation plane flies over the flag-carrying demonstrators. With King are his wife, Coretta Scott King, right, and singer Harry Belafonte, at center beside Dr. King. (AP Images)

“I was an activist who became an artist,” he said in a 2011 interview with PBS. “And my activism really started the day of my birth, born from immigrant parents in New York City. My mother was overwhelmed by America. She came here with hopes and ambitions that were never fulfilled.”

Harry continued to fight for civil rights and use his platform as an activist. He was the subject of the 2023 documentary Following Harry, which followed his efforts in recent years. “At the close of [2011 documentary] Sing Your Song, I expressed my desire for the next generation to take my experiences freely, to learn from them, or to bring something better to move the cause of fighting injustice forward,” he told Deadline in a statement.

Harry was married three times, and he was a father of four kids. He and Marguerite Byrd were married from 1948 to 1957. They welcomed two daughters, Adrienne and Shari. In 1957, he married his second wife, Julie Robinson. They welcomed two children – Gina and David – together, before ultimately calling it quits in 2008 after 47 years of marriage. That year, he married photographer, Pamela Frank. Harry is also survived by five grandchildren.