The Legendary ‘King of Calypso’ and Activist Harry Belafonte Dies at 96

The Legendary ‘King of Calypso’ and Activist Harry Belafonte Dies at 96

Harry Belafonte, who rose to international stardom after his groundbreaking 1956 hit, “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” has died at age 96.

On Tuesday, April 25, the Jamaican-American musician, actor, and human rights activist died at his Manhattan, New York, home. His publicist, Ken Sunshine, told The Washington Post that the cause of death was linked to congestive heart failure.

The King of Calypso

Born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York City, Belafonte spent his early years in his mother’s home country of Jamaica before she relocated her two sons back to New York in search of better job opportunities.

Belafonte developed his love for music in Jamaica, becoming a major Black crossover success. From folk music to calypso, Belafonte was nicknamed the ‘King of Calypso’ for popularizing the Caribbean musical style worldwide in the 1950s.

“The role of art isn’t just to show life as it is but to show life as it should be,” Belafonte once said, per the Washington Post.

Living in rebellion

According to CNN, Belafonte has lived in a constant state of rebellion.

“Without the rebellious heart, without people who understand that there’s no sacrifice we can make that is too great to retrieve that which we’ve lost, we will forever be distracted with possessions and trinkets and title,” Belafonte once said.

While growing his career in the arts, Belafonte became a fierce advocate for civil rights. He spent years as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s confidant and served as a liaison between the civil rights movement and Hollywood. He helped promote the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and famine relief through efforts such as the “We Are the World” recording and concerts in the ’80s.

“I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’” he once said,“My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.”

Breaking into Hollywood

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1950: Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge pose for a publicity shot in New York around 1950. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Belafonte became a movie star after acting in the film adaption of the Broadway musical, “Carmen Jones,” in 1954, and the rest is history.

He went on to win an Emmy for outstanding performance in a variety or musical program or series in 1960 for The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte on CBS. The win was trailblazing, as Belafonte became the first Black person to take home the coveted award.

In response to Belafonte’s passing, social media is mourning. Many people, including Bernice King, the daughter of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., reflected on how much Belafonte has impacted their lives.