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The African folk music and Civil Rights icon Harry Belafonte has passed away at the ripe age of 96, in his home town in New York. The singer has been associated closely with the Black pop culture and social activism for nearly seven decades. 

Apart from music and films, Belafonte’s legacy includes avid emotional and financial support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. As well as famine relief work since the 1980s.

Harry Belafonte was born to Caribbean immigrants in 1927. Growing up in Harlem, Belafonte started his career with pop music, before making it big with Jamaican folk songs in the 1950s. Calypso, a 1956 record that made history by selling over a million copies, is considered the masterpiece of his entertainment career.

In addition to music, Belafonte also entered the filmmaking scene around the same time, appearing in Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). He won his first EGOT prize with an Emmy Award in 1959, for his short-lived television episode Tonight with Belafonte. Over the course of his life, Belafonte would go on to win one Tony and three Grammy Awards, too, falling short of an Oscar. He most recently appeared in BlacKkKlansman (2018), and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just last year.

At the same time, Belafonte was one of the handful of popular Black entertainers at the time who risked their careers and popularity to become ardent supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. Belafonte was a champion of non-violent protest and closely associated with Dr. Martin Luther King until his assassination. The cultural icon continued his social activism until death, being involved with many humanitarian and political causes. Belafonte was a vocal critic of the Bush and Trump administrations.

According to Dr. Irwin Redlener, a longtime friend of Belafonte and co-founder of Children’s Health Fund, Belafonte took interest in recent waves of popular Black activism, but lamented the lack of participation by African-American celebrities. Redlener remembered the late artist as: “A role model, and an inspiring individual who was very important to my own identity as a social activist.”

Many leading political and social figures cherished his legacy on Twitter. Reverend Al Sharpton mimicked Dr. Redlener’s words, calling Belafonte: “A true mentor & friend” and “a history changing activist, a culture changing entertainer, & an unmatched intellectual.”

Democratic California Representative Maxine Waters reminisced: “Another superstar has just passed. My dear friend, Harry Belafonte, was an extraordinarily talented singer and performer. More than that, he was a civil rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and worked with President Nelson Mandela to end Apartheid in South Africa. We will all miss his wisdom, his advice, and his huge giving spirit.”

The former President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Sherilyn Ifill compared Belafonte’s legacy to that of Sidney Poitier, a friend of Belafonte and fellow entertainment icon who passed away last January: “The beauty. The integrity. The “shining Black manhood.” We are so blessed to have seen the talent and leadership of #SidneyPoitier and #HarryBelafonte.”

Video by:
Harry Belafonte Television And Video Archive

Anthony Tilghman

Anthony Tilghman, is an 3x Award-winning Photojournalist, Education advocate, Mentor, and Published Author with years of experience in media, photography, marketing and branding. He is the Winner of the...