Harry Belafonte, activist and entertainer, dies aged 96

He is considered a role model and the epitome of the prominent activist.

(Steffi Loos | AP file photo) Harry Belafonte arrives for the ‘Ein Herz für Kinder’ charity gala in Berlin in this December 6, 2014 file photo.

New York • Harry Belafonte, the civil rights and entertainment giant who started as a breakthrough actor and singer and became an activist, humanitarian and conscience of the world, has died. He was 96.

Belafonte died of congestive heart failure at his home in New York on Tuesday, with his wife Pamela at his side, said Paula M. Witt of public relations firm Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis.

With his radiant, handsome face and silky, husky voice, Belafonte was one of the first black artists to garner a large following in film and sold a million records as a singer; Many still know him for his signature hit “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and his call “Day-O! Daaaay-O.” But he forged a larger legacy when he scaled back his career as an artist in the 1960s and lived out his hero Paul Robeson’s decree that artists are “gatekeepers of truth.”

He is considered a role model and the epitome of the prominent activist. Few have kept pace with Belafonte’s time and commitment, and none with his position as a meeting place between Hollywood, Washington and the civil rights movement.

In addition to participating in protest marches and benefit concerts, Belafonte helped organize them and gather support. He worked closely with his friend and fellow generationist Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., often interceding on his behalf with both politicians and other entertainers and assisting him financially. Risking his life and livelihood, he set high standards for younger black celebrities, berated Jay Z and Beyonce for failing to meet their “social responsibilities,” and mentored Usher, Common, Danny Glover, and many others. He was appropriately cast in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman as an elderly statesman who enlightens young activists about the country’s past.

Belafonte’s friend, civil rights activist Andrew Young, noted that Belafonte was the rare person to become more radical as he got older. He was always committed and unyielding, ready to take on the segregationists of the South, the liberals of the North, the billionaire Koch brothers and the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, who Belafonte would remember asking him to do , “to slack off”.

Belafonte replied, “What makes you think I didn’t do that?”

Belafonte has been an important artist since the 1950s. He won a Tony Award for his starring role in John Murray Anderson’s The Almanac in 1954, and five years later became the first black actor to win an Emmy for the TV special Tonight with Harry Belafonte.

In 1954 he co-starred with Dorothy Dandridge in the Otto Preminger-directed musical Carmen Jones, a popular breakthrough for an all-black cast. The 1957 film “Island in the Sun” was banned in several southern cities, where theater owners were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan over the film’s interracial romance between Belafonte and Joan Fontaine.

Justin Scaccy

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