Harry Belafonte – Singer and civil rights activist dies aged 96

Harry Belafonte

Singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte has died at his home in New York, aged 96.

A star of the stage and screen, and the first artist of any genre to sell one million albums in a year, Belafonte was a Hollywood icon, unafraid to stand up for what he believed in.

He scored hits with ‘Island In The Sun’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ and the UK number one ‘Day-O’ (The Banana Boat Song). But his greatest achievements were as a campaigner for black civil rights in the US.

A close friend of Martin Luther King, Belafonte was a notable and visible supporter of the civil rights movement, who bankrolled several anti-segregation organisations and was known to have bailed Dr King and other activists out of jail.

He was one of the organisers of the 1963 March on Washington, and also took part in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.

“Belafonte’s global popularity and his commitment to our cause is a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the Civil Rights movement. We are blessed by his courage and moral integrity,” Dr King once observed.

The star also campaigned against poverty, apartheid and Aids in Africa; and became an ambassador for Unicef, the United Nations children’s fund.

In 1985, he helped organise the charity single ‘We Are the World’, an all-star musical collaboration that raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia.

After watching a news report on the famine, he rallied artists to raise money in the same way Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had done with Band Aid in the UK a few weeks earlier.

Featuring Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Diana Ross among many others, the song – written by Jackson and Lionel Richie – generated millions of dollars for charity.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?'” Belafonte said in a National Public Radio interview in 2011. “I say to them, ‘I was long an activist before I became an artist.'”

More recently, he reached out to younger black celebrities, scolding Jay Z and Beyonce for failing to meet their “social responsibilities,” and mentoring stars including singer Usher, rapper Common and actor Danny Glover.

Fittingly, Belafonte made an apt cameo appearance in Spike Lee’s Oscar winning 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, playing an elder statesman schooling young activists about America’s past.

Paying tribute to Belafonte on Instagram, Lee wrote: “May God Have My Dear Friend Harry Belafonte At A Peaceful Rest. We Are Losing Our Giants Left And Right. We Have To Celebrate Our Elders While They Are With Us.”


Watch the USA for Africa perform Harry’s ‘Day-O’ (The Banana Boat Song)’ song in tribute to him: