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Harry Belafonte, calypso star and civil rights champion, dies at 96

American singer Harry Belafonte performing in a recording studio, circa 1957. 

Pictorial Parade | Archive Pictures | Getty Photos

Harry Belafonte, the effortlessly sleek singer credited with popularizing calypso within the U.S. within the Nineteen Fifties who then marched on the forefront of the nation’s civil rights battle for half a century, died Tuesday, in accordance with his spokesman.

He was 96.

Belafonte died of congestive coronary heart failure in New York Metropolis, longtime spokesperson Ken Sunshine confirmed to NBC Information.

Belafonte’s legacy as an arresting, charismatic singer and actor, which was sealed with the discharge of the landmark album “Calypso” in 1956, spanned greater than six many years.

As lately as 2018 he made a bone-chilling look within the film “BlacKkKlansman,” portraying an older civil rights chief who recounts the judicial railroading and brutal lynching of Jesse Washington, a Black teenage farmhand, in Waco, Texas, in 1916.

Belafonte, after a number of years of poor well being, needed to get his physician’s permission to shoot the scene. The film’s director, Spike Lee, instructed “I mentioned, ‘Thanks, Jesus.’ And I mentioned to the crew: ‘While you come to the set tomorrow, I need you to have a go well with on, a tie, put on your Sunday finest. In the event you gown lazy, do not come to work, as a result of we now have a really particular visitor.'”

Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in New York’s Harlem, in 1927, the son of Harold George Bellanfanti Sr., a Martinique-born chef, and Melvine Bellanfanti, a Jamaica-born housekeeper. Between the ages of 8 and about 13, he lived in Jamaica along with his mom, returning to the U.S. to proceed highschool earlier than he served within the Navy throughout World Warfare II.

Belafonte attended the Dramatic Workshop of the New College for Social Analysis on the G.I. Invoice, in a category that included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Sidney Poitier, who would turn into a lifelong buddy.

On the facet, he sang in New York nightclubs, the place he discovered his first success turning his clean, elegant renditions of pop, jazz and folks classics into an engagement on the Village Vanguard, the place he was quickly noticed by RCA Victor and signed to a report contract in 1952.

Belafonte was urged by the Black novelist and songwriter William Attaway to “view folks songs as a physique of social data, a collective useful resource open to all,” the College of Massachusetts scholar Judith E. Smith wrote in her 2014 biography, “Changing into Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical.”

Belafonte thereafter targeted on vernacular and folks music, a lot of it expressions of the Black and Caribbean expertise. Inside a 12 months, he had successful single, “Matilda,” which might keep in his repertoire for many years. By 1954, he had hit No. 3 on the album charts with “Mark Twain and Different Folks Favorites.”

He had additionally scored on Broadway, profitable a Tony for finest efficiency by an actor in a number one function in a musical in 1954 for the revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.”

After which got here 1956, when he dominated the music world with two No. 1 albums, “Belafonte” and “Calypso,” a landmark in American well-liked music that was the primary LP report to be licensed with gross sales of 1 million or extra.

The album — which included Belafonte’s signature quantity, “Day-O (Banana Boat Tune),” with its unforgettable Jamaican dockworker’s lament — spent 99 weeks on the charts, 31 of them at No. 1, which stays the fourth-longest run in Billboard chart historical past.

It additionally established calypso, an African Caribbean folks mix rooted in Trinidad and Tobago, as a permanent part of the American music scene, incomes him the nickname the “King of Calypso.” It paved the way in which for a wave of people acts that dotted the charts via the start of the British music invasion of the mid-Nineteen Sixties and continues to affect folks and “island music” artists like Jimmy Buffett, Alison Hinds, Buster Poindexter, Mighty Sparrow, the Mighty Vikings and David Rudder.

Singer Harry Belafonte speaks throughout a press junket at The Bing Resolution Maker Sequence with the “Sing Your Tune” Forged and Filmmakers on January 22, 2011 in Park Metropolis, Utah.

Michael Buckner | Getty Photos

“Years later, it stays a report of inestimable affect, inspiring many people singers and teams,” the famous music historian and author Cary Ginell wrote of “Calypso.”

Belafonte established himself on tv throughout the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s, receiving an Emmy in 1960 for his efficiency within the musical particular “Tonight With Belafonte,” which made him the primary Black artist to win an Emmy. He adopted it up with one other nomination the subsequent 12 months.

By 1954, Belafonte was within the motion pictures, as effectively, having gained a prized lead function within the movie adaptation of “Carmen Jones,” the all-Black Broadway musical re-imagining of Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Regardless of his report gross sales and his Tony Award for a musical revue, Belafonte wasn’t allowed to sing within the film — his songs had been dubbed by the opera singer LeVern Hutcherson.

In search of to take management of his profession, Belafonte mounted his personal film manufacturing in 1959, “Odds In opposition to Tomorrow,” a gritty movie noir written by the blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky and backed by a John Lewis rating.

The movie, a couple of Black nightclub entertainer’s clashes with a racist white financial institution robber, was effectively reviewed, and it was nominated for a Golden Globe, however it flopped on the field workplace.

It was one in every of many boundary-pushing moments all through Belafonte’s life and profession — in April 1968, for instance, a TV particular starring Belafonte and the white pop singer Petula Clark created a nationwide stir as a result of Clark briefly touched Belafonte’s arm throughout a duet.

Such incidents solely empowered Belafonte, whose social consciousness started to emerge throughout the early Nineteen Fifties below the steering of Paul Robeson, the polymath singer, artist and activist he referred to as his mentor. From 1954 till 1961, Belafonte refused to carry out within the Deep South, making him a goal of white racist commentators and touchdown him for a time on Hollywood’s infamous blacklist throughout the McCarthy period.

By the early Nineteen Sixties, Belafonte had turn into a drive within the civil rights motion. Already a confidant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he campaigned for Sen. John F. Kennedy throughout the 1960 presidential marketing campaign, and after Kennedy was elected, he grew to become an middleman between King and Legal professional Normal Robert Kennedy. It was Belafonte who put up the cash in 1963 to bail King out of jail in Alabama, the place King most forcefully articulated the civil rights technique of nonviolence in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

Belafonte grew to become related to King in 1956 at a New York fundraising occasion for activists working in Montgomery, Alabama. King later mentioned Belafonte was “a key ingredient to the worldwide battle for freedom and a strong tactical weapon within the civil rights motion right here in America,” including: “We’re blessed by his braveness and ethical integrity.”

King and his spouse, Coretta Scott King, so trusted Belafonte that after King was assassinated in 1968, Belafonte was appointed because the executor of King’s property.

“Every time we obtained into hassle or when tragedy struck, Harry has at all times come to our help, his beneficiant coronary heart vast open,” Coretta Scott King wrote in her 1969 autobiography, “My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Belafonte supported all kinds of civil rights causes all through the Nineteen Sixties — as a foremost financier of the Pupil Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he even flew to Mississippi to affix the group’s Mississippi Freedom Summer season marketing campaign in 1964.

His attentions quickly broadened to embody human rights world wide, particularly in Africa. He acquired his second Grammy for the 1965 album “An Night With Belafonte/Makeba,” a set of people and protest songs that he recorded with the South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba. (Belafonte’s first Grammy was awarded for “Swing Dat Hammer,” within the ethnic or conventional folks recording class in 1961.)

It started an extended interval of advocacy for the oppressed Black majority of South Africa’s apartheid authorities, a time highlighted by his years as a board member of TransAfrica Discussion board, based by Randall Robinson in 1977.

In 1985, Belafonte was arrested in a protest outdoors the South African Embassy in Washington. The identical 12 months, he led the hassle to carry the African reduction music mission Band Assist to the U.S. from Britain, ensuing within the monumental USA for Africa fundraising live shows and the one “We Are the World,” for which he recruited nearly all the main singers of the day.

Belafonte sang within the refrain on the report, and through its recording, the assembled superstars — amongst them Michael Jackson, Stevie Surprise, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross and Bob Dylan — spontaneously broke out into “Day-O (Banana Boat Tune)” in tribute.

Belafonte accepted that his activism would overshadow his music, however the USA for Africa mission reignited curiosity in his artistry. He signed a brand new report take care of EMI and, in 1988, launched his first album in almost a decade, a set of apartheid songs titled “Paradise in Gazankulu.” A live performance video of world music shortly adopted, and in 1988, the director Tim Burton included numerous Belafonte’s songs, reminiscent of “Day-O (Banana Boat Tune)” and “Leap within the Line,” in his soundtrack for the film “Beetlejuice.”

“The Lengthy Highway to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music,” a set of songs recorded over 20 years that includes Belafonte, was launched in 2001 and was nominated for a Grammy for finest historic album.

Through the years, Belafonte battled prostate most cancers, and, true to his nature, grew to become a distinguished advocate for most cancers analysis.

In 2007, he introduced his retirement, though he continued a strenuous load of appearances for causes he supported effectively into his later years, particularly concentrating on the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, whom he thought of a warmonger, and Donald Trump, whom he referred to as a “most cancers” and likened in 2017 to Hitler.

Belafonte acquired many of the main honors the U.S. reserves for its revered artists and performers, amongst them the Kennedy Middle Honors in 1989, the Nationwide Medal of Arts in 1994, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, the BET Humanitarian Award in 2006, the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 2013 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Movement Image Academy in 2014.

Survivors embrace his third spouse, Pamela Frank; three daughters, Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte and Gina Belafonte, each actors; and a son, the actor and producer David Belafonte.

In a Could 1989 interview for the PBS civil rights collection “Eyes on the Prize II,” archived within the Henry Hampton Assortment at Washington College in St. Louis, Belafonte summed up his philosophy:

“I might say that you’re actually liable for the world through which you reside. If others occur to return alongside and be a part of you within the spirit of your endeavor and your targets to make the world a greater place, then you definitely’re the richer for it.”