(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 “Harry” Belafonte 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 in Harlem after the war and staged several plays with his lifelong friend Sidney Poitier, before embarking on music where his charisma and vocal qualities brought him rapid success, which would 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 in 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.
“When people think of activism, they always think it involves sacrifice, but I’ve always seen it as a privilege and an opportunity,” he said in a 2004 speech at Emory University.
In 1963, he raised 50,000 dollars, 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.
Distrustful of politicians, he had met John Kennedy in 1960, inviting the then presidential candidate to his home.
He was initially unconvinced by the senator seeking support, later reporting that Kennedy “knew very little about the black community.”
But once elected, “JFK” appointed him Peace Corps Cultural Attaché. 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 against 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.
Here are some key dates for Harry Belafonte, African-American singer and actor who died Tuesday at age 96. A UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for more than 35 years, he has distinguished himself through his commitment to civil and humanitarian rights.
-March 1, 1927: birth in Harlem, of a Jamaican mother and a Martinican father, of Harold George “Harry” Bellanfanti Jr. who will live for a time in Jamaica where he will discover the rhythm of the carnivals of Trinidad and Tobago , the origin of his nickname “Calypso King”.
-1953: after acting classes and cabaret shows, Harry Belafonte receives a Tony Award for Best Musical Comedy Actor for Almanac by John Murray Anderson, on Broadway. He appears at the cinema in Bright Road (Gerald Mayer) and will continue in, among others, Carmen Jones by Otto Preminger (1954), Le coup de l’escalade (Robert Wise, 1959), Buck and his accomplice (Sidney Poitier, 1972 ), Kansas City (Robert Altman, 1996) and Bobby (Emilio Estevez, 2006).
-1956: after the immense triumph of his cover of a slave song, Day-O, his album Calypso is the first in the history of music to exceed one million copies sold.
-1957: Belafonte is the first African-American actor, ten years before Sidney Poitier, to play a love story with a white actress, in Robert Rossen’s Island in the Sun (An island in the sun).
-1959: he is also the first African-American to win an Emmy Award for his television show Tonight with Harry Belafonte, of which he is the producer.
-1960: six gold records and several Grammy Awards for Belafonte, involved in various humanitarian causes and the first entertainment personality appointed cultural adviser to the Peace Corps by President Kennedy.
-1985: mobilized for Africa and against apartheid, he is the main promoter of We are the World, sung by 45 American artists (USA for Africa record) which receives the Grammy Award for record of the year.
-1987: Appointed UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
-2014: 20 years after the National Medal of Arts, he received an honorary Oscar rewarding his activism for civil rights, the defense of children’s rights, education, and against racism, inequality, hunger and poverty. AIDS.
-April 25, 2023: the singer dies at the age of 96 in New York from heart failure.