News that actor, singer, civil rights icon Harry Belafonte died Tuesday came if not as a shock, at least with a powerful jolt of rhythm and reverence. It came with the “Day-O!” refrain from his most famous song, and memories of Black elders, especially women, rhapsodizing about how very, very handsome Belafonte was.
Although the Harlem native was 96, as an artist and activist who dismantled racial barriers and put his time and treasure toward the cause of Black uplift, his presence during a key era in Black visibility and activism felt, in some ways, eternal.
Belafonte was the son of West Indian immigrants and his 1950s musical breakthrough popularizing folk music, including the 1956 chart-topping Calypso album, introduced a national audience to the sounds of the Caribbean.
Belafonte once told NPR that audiences who thrilled to “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” were celebrating protest. “It’s about men who sweat all day long, and they are underpaid. They’re begging for the tallyman to come and give them an honest count: ‘Count the bananas that I’ve picked so I can be paid.’ When people sing in delight and dance and love it, they don’t really understand unless they study the song — that they’re singing a work song that’s a song of rebellion.”
“Harry Belafonte was always committed to that combination of art and activism,” said Steven Lewis, curator of music and performing arts for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Calypso was the first million-selling LP album in history and “the success that he had as an entertainer allowed him to provide really meaningful support to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.”
Part of Belafonte’s appeal rested in the fact that he didn’t mind showing up as a gorgeous Black man who could inhabit his Blackness with a silky smoothness. He could sing it, he could speak it, he walked into the room, or across the stage with a presence that uplifted the nation. Belafonte’s charisma and matinee idol looks made him the stuff of movies.
Watching Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 musical film Carmen Jones was to see a couple the equal of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, or Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, with all the chemistry to be a Hollywood movie draw. The constraints on Black artists at the time are part of the racist limitations Belafonte and others had to contend with.
“There was limited opportunity for African Americans to really break through in Hollywood, and those that did exist often played out along very colorist lines,” Lewis said. It doesn’t take away from their achievements as artists to recognize that their peers who were darker-skinned may not have had even those limited opportunities.
The deadening effects of racism helped fuel Belafonte’s activism. Weary of the limited “Uncle Tom” roles Hollywood was offering, by the late 1950s Belafonte channeled much of his passion and ambition into the Civil Rights Movement. He donated money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and raised funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to bail activists out of jail.
During the 1964 Freedom Summer, Belafonte and fellow actor and friend Sidney Poitier delivered $70,000 in cash to the Greenwood, Mississippi, SNCC headquarters to keep its voting rights and educational advocacy afloat.
In 1968, with the nation roiled by protests against racial injustice and the Vietnam War, Belafonte was tapped by Johnny Carson to guest host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for a week. The 2020 Peacock documentary The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts ‘The Tonight Show,’ showed how Belafonte used his charm and accessibility to turn the mainstream platform into a week of contemporary politics, activism and Black artistry. His guests included civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who would both be assassinated months later. He hosted singer Aretha Franklin, and actor and folk singer Leon Bibb, who’d been blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his advocacy of left-wing causes and his association with the artist and activist Paul Robeson, one of Belafonte’s mentors.
The Sit-In director, Yoruba Richen, said Belafonte’s art and activism “certainly was a throughline of his life. He became a breakthrough megastar at a time of segregation and we told the story of his multi-breakthrough career, being a first in so many realms– television, film, music–and then his lifelong dedication, not just to Black civil rights, but also global justice.” With the news of Belafonte’s death, Richen, director of the documentary program at City University of New York’s Newmark School of Journalism, assigned the documentary to her students, some of whom hadn’t heard of Belafonte, and said she hopes people will engage, or re-engage with the breadth and longevity of Belafonte’s contributions to the advancement of Black people and people around the world.
News of Belafonte’s death brought in tributes from younger artists and activists, who cited his inspiration and mentorship as part of the inspiration for their own work.
Belafonte remained active and relevant throughout his later years. He organized the 1985 “We Are the World,” concert and song for famine relief in Africa. He produced Beat Street in 1984, providing one of the early look at hip-hop culture to gain a mainstream audience. He advocated for AIDS awareness and against mass incarceration. His appearance in the Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman, in 2019 sparked Oscar buzz.
“He was somebody who paid attention to changes in popular culture,” said Lewis. He tracked the changes he helped bring about, earning the respect and gratitude of generations of worldwide audiences. Half of them, surely, were delighted just to look at him.
Senior Entertainment Reporter Kelley L. Carter contributed to this report.