Harry Belafonte Dies: Actor, Singer And Civil Rights Icon Was 96

Harry Belafonte, the actor, singer and civil rights trailblazer, has died, aged 96.

He passed away this morning of congestive heart failure at his New York home, with his wife Pamela by his side.

Belafonte is considered among the most successful Caribbean-American music stars of all time and one of the first Black leading men in Hollywood, making a name for himself during the 1950s and 1960s. An activist and social campaigner by nature, he was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and became a major figure in the U.S.’s social and political history of the 20th Century.

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He was a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and backed many historic political and social causes and events, including the anti-Apartheid Movement, equal rights for women, juvenile justice, climate change and the decolonization of Africa. He was one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, leading a delegation of Hollywood including best friend Sidney Poitier, as well as Paul Newman, Sammy Davis, Jr, Marlon Brando, Rita Moreno, Tony Curtis and many others.

Belafonte starred in several movies, including Bright Road, Carmen Jones, Buck and the Preacher and Uptown Saturday Night, the latter two appearing opposite Poitier. He also produced films such as Beat Street, and later in his career appeared in movies including White Man’s Burden, Kansas City and Bobby.

He was known as one of the first black producers in television, winning an Emmy for his CBS production Tonight with Belafonte.

Born in Harlem in 1927, he was later sent by his mother to her island of birth, Jamaica. When World War II broke out, he returned to New York and later enlisted in the United States Navy. He was honorably discharged and again returned to New York, where he worked several jobs before finding himself drawn to the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research under the tutelage of renowned German director Erwin Piscator, where he was classmates with the likes of Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis.

Belafonte went on to become a music star and his breakthrough album came in 1956 through “Calypso”, which was recorded three years after his first widely released single, “Matilda.” While calypso was his signature sound, he recorded gospel, American standards, blues and show tunes.

Belafonte was also instrumental in bringing African music stars such as Hugh Maskela and Miriam Makeba to the world, winning a Grammy with the latter for their 1965 joint album, ‘An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba.’

He and manager Ken Kragen are credited with guiding and directing the USA for Africa project, which spawned the all-star single “We Are the World” in 1985. His humanitarian work saw him advocate for the release of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela in South Africa and be appointed as a cultural advisor to the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy. He was also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, the second American to hold the position.

Belafonte was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in November last year.

He is survived by his wife, daughters Shari, Adrienne and Gina and son David, and numerous grandchildren.

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