(New York) Bewitching voice and charming physique, Harry Belafonte, nicknamed “the king of calypso”, rose to fame in the 1950s and marked his time with his humanitarian convictions and his fight for civil rights in the United States.
The iconic singer died on Tuesday at the age of 96, several American media reported.
Born in Harlem on March 1, 1927 to a Jamaican mother and a Martinican father, the singer spoke for these rhythms with Matilda, Day-O, Island in the Sun, Jamaica Farewell, Try to Remember or Coconut Woman.
It was as a child, when he lived in Jamaica, that George Belafonte, known as Harry, discovered calypso, a music with West African influences born in the carnivals of Trinidad and Tobago, which will seduce the American public with its exoticism. .
Returning to the United States, he entered the Black Theater of Harlem after the war and produced several plays with his lifelong friend Sidney Poitier, before embarking on music where his charisma and his vocal qualities reserved him a rapid success, which will be the springboard for its commitment against racial segregation.
First a singer of ballads in cabarets, he made his mark in the early 1950s with a popular repertoire that mixed the influences of American variety, Caribbean music and the black culture of Harlem.
In 1955, he triumphed with the title Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), and the album Calypso (1956) became the first in history to sell more than one million copies.
He filled the halls and his recordings, including six Gold Records, were a worldwide success and earned him several Grammy awards from 1960.
At the same time, Belafonte notably played in Carmen Jones by Otto Preminger (1954), Le coup de l’escalade (Robert Wise, 1959), Kansas City by Robert Altman (1996), Buck and his accomplice, by and with Sidney Poitier (1972 ), and Bobby (Emilio Estevez, 2006) on the assassination of Bob Kennedy.
He became the first black actor to play, in 1957, a love story with a white actress in An Island in the Sun by Robert Rossen, and also the first African-American to produce a television program and win an Emmy award (1959 ).
But the young man is not content to be a symbol. Quickly, he finances the campaign for civil rights and becomes close to Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1963, he raised $50,000, the equivalent of almost $500,000 today, to get out of Martin Luther King prison, at a time when artists were pocketing comfortable incomes.
“I could have made $2 or $3 billion and ended up with some cruel addiction, but I chose to be a civil rights fighter instead,” he explained in a 2007 interview with The Guardian.
But once elected, JFK named him cultural attaché of the Peace Corps. Later, in 1987, he was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
He spends time in Africa, including Kenya, and campaigning against apartheid in South Africa. In 1988, he dedicated his last album, Paradise in Gazankulu, to this cause.
He is the main promoter of We Are the World, sung in 1985 by 45 American artists raising funds to fight the famine in Ethiopia.
After opposing the war in Iraq, in 2006 he accused President George W. Bush of being a “terrorist”, no better, he said, than Osama bin Laden.
He also takes controversial positions, getting angry with the heirs of Martin Luther King who criticize his admiration for the Venezuelan Hugo Chavez, or reproaching the wealthy black couple Jay Z and Beyoncé in 2012 for having “turned their backs on social responsibilities” .
The dyslexic artist, who was not betting on success after dropping out of high school, serving in the army or working as a janitor, was showered with prestigious awards at the end of his life.
Thus, in 2014, the Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar, because “from the start of his career he chose projects highlighting racism and inequalities”.
Married three times, Harry Belafonte had three daughters and a son from his first two wives.