Harry Belafonte has reportedly passed away at the age of 96.
According to Ken Sunshine, his longtime spokesman, the actor, activist, and singer died on Tuesday (April 25), from congestive heart failure at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Belafonte was born in Harlem on March 1, 1927 to Jamaican immigrants. As a toddler, he moved to Jamaica, but returned to New York once again for high school and then joined the Navy. He caught the acting bug after taking in a show at the American Negro Theater. He and fellow future legend Sidney Portier became regular attendees and vowed to work on their craft.
With his leading man good looks and untapped talent, Belafonte enrolled in New York’s Dramatic Workshop under the tutelage of famous director Erwin Piscator.
The acting classes paid off for the young thespian. In 1953, he made his film debut alongside Dorothy Dandridge in Bright Road. A year later, the dashing pair reunited on screen for Carmen Jones, an epic musical with an all-Black cast. In 2001, Carmen Jones was re-imagined as the television movie Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring singer Beyonce, actor Mekhi Phifer, and rapper/actor Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def).
Belafonte went on to have a decades-long acting career, being careful about the roles he chose and the representation of Black people. He appeared in films such as Uptown Saturday Night, a buddy film franchise starring Sidney Portier and Bill Cosby. Belafonte also lent his voice to the cartoon series Happily Ever After: A Fairytale for Every Child and he had a role in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning film BlacKkKlansman.
Known for more than just his acting, Belafonte also had a robust singing career. His calypso hits such as “Day-O” and “Jump in the Line (Shake Senora)” are still party favorites and were featured in the cult classic 1988 film Beetlejuice. In 1961, Frank Sinatra recruited Belafonte to perform at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala. In February 1968, Belafonte substituted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show for a week and his guests included his good friend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout his life, whether he was focused on music or acting, activism was a constant. From marching alongside MLK to protesting against apartheid in South Africa, he always used his platform for causes he felt would make the world better.
'To speak out against an unjust war was treasonous, to speak against the treatment of Blacks made you a Communist dupe,'' Belafonte said in a 1985 Chicago Tribune interview about his work against apartheid. ''But if you feel in your heart that you have a responsibility because of your good fortunes to advance justice and human rights, then you hang in.''
Another famous Black entertainer helped shape Belafonte’s activism and world views.
“Paul Robeson, who was my mentor, when he first heard me perform, not only encouraged the fact that I was on the right path, but also said to me ‘Get them to sing your song and they’ll want to know who you are,” explained Belafonte about his 2011 memoir titled My Song. “It is meant to encourage you to take a look at your song. Is it really the melody that you think it is?”
Belafonte received numerous awards over the years, including the Humanitarian Award at the 2006 BET Awards, an Emmy in 1960 for The Revlon Review, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2015 Academy Awards, and two Grammys.
Harry Belafonte is survived by his wife Pamela, his four children Adrienne, Shari, David, and Gina from his first two marriages, 8 grandchildren, and a stepdaughter, Sarah Frank; a stepson, Lindsey Frank; and three step-grandchildren.
Watch BET’s “Harry Belafonte: In His Own Word” airing on April 25 at 6:00 PM ET/PT on BET.