Harry Belafonte, the King of Calypso and 2014 recipient of the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for a lifetime of activism, died at his home in New York on Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 96.
Belafonte was born on March 1, 1927 in Harlem to Caribbean immigrants. His mother was from Jamaica, and his father was born on the island of Martinique. He rose to fame in the '50s and '60s with his unique blend of Calypso music and socially conscious lyrics. His hit songs included his iconic rendition of "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," as well as "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)," "Island in the Sun," and "Jamaica Farewell." His music was a reflection of his commitment to equality and social justice.
Belafonte also was an accomplished actor. He made his film debut opposite Dorothy Dandridge in 1953's Bright Road, and would go on to star in such movies as Otto Preminger's romantic musical Carmen Jones (1954), Robert Rossen's romantic drama Island in the Sun (1957), and Sidney Poitier's Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). His final film role was in Spike Lee's Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018), playing civil rights activist Jerome Turner.
Belafonte's legacy extends far beyond his career as a performer. A tireless advocate for social justice and humanitarian causes, Belafonte used his platform to speak out against racism and segregation, and was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, Belafonte was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
"When I was a child, Harry Belafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways. In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings," Bernice King, MLK's daughter, tweeted following news of Belafonte's death. "Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College. I won’t forget…Rest well, sir."
Belafonte received a Tony Award in 1954 for his role in John Murray Anderson's Almanac. In 1960, he became the first Black performer to win an Emmy, which he won for his performance in "The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte," the CBS variety special that showcased historical and contemporary musical styles of Black America, including gospel, blues and jazz. Belafonte received three Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2014, Belafonte received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, making him a non-competitive EGOT holder.
"How fortunate for me that the performing arts became the catalyst that fueled my desire for social change," Belafonte said onstage at the Governors Awards. "To be rewarded by my peers for my work in human rights, and civil rights, and for peace, well, let me put it this way: It powerfully mutes the enemy's thunder... I really wish I could be around for the rest of this century to see what Hollywood does with the rest of the century. Maybe, just maybe, it could be civilization's game changer. After all, Paul Robeson said, 'Artists are the radical voice of civilization.'"
He continued, "Each and every one of you in this room with your gifts, and your power, and your skills, could perhaps change the way in which our global humanity mistrusts itself. Perhaps we as artists and as visionaries for what's better in the human heart and the human soul, could you influence citizens everywhere in the world to see the better side of who and what we are as a species."
Belafonte is survived by his wife Pamela, his four children, two stepchildren, and eight grandchildren.