(CMR) Harry Belafonte (96), the Jamaican-American singer, actor, and activist who helped break Caribbean music through to a global audience and whose humanitarian efforts changed the world, has died.
Belafonte was dubbed the “King of Calypso” after the groundbreaking success of his 1956 hit, “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” He also became a movie star after acting in the film adaption of the Broadway musical, “Carmen Jones.”
He became the first Black person to win an Emmy Award in 1960. But, according to CNN, his most significant contributions took place offstage. He was a key strategist, fundraiser and mediator for the civil rights movement. He continually risked his entertainment career – and at least once his life – for his activism.
Belafonte was a close friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who often retired to Belafonte’s palatial New York apartment to talk strategy or escape the pressures of leading the civil rights movement.
Belafonte’s political consciousness was shaped by the experience of growing up as the son of a poor Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant.
Belafonte was born March 1, 1927 in New York City to poor Caribbean immigrants. His father worked as a cook on merchant ships and abandoned the family when Belafonte was young. Belafonte also spent some of his boyhood in Jamaica, his mother’s native country, where he witnessed White English authorities mistreating Black Jamaicans.
“I wasn't an artist who became an activist. I was an activist who became an artist. Ever since my mother had drummed it into me, I'd felt the need to fight injustice wherever I saw it, in whatever way I could,” Belafonte wrote in his 2011 memoir.
Belafonte saw the civil rights movement as a global struggle. He led a campaign against apartheid in South Africa, and befriended Nelson Mandela. He mobilized support for the fight against HIV/AIDS and became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He also came up with the idea for recording the 1985 hit song, “We Are the World,” which assembled a constellation of pop and rock stars, including Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, to raise money for famine relief in Africa.