Harry Belafonte Dies at 96: A Trailblazing Singer, Actor and Civil Rights Activist

Harry Belafonte, a beloved singer, actor and civil rights activist who stormed music and racial barriers, has died at 96.

Legendary singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte has died at his New York City apartment. He was 96.

The cause of death was congestive heart failure, said longtime spokesman Ken Sunshine.

Belafonte blasted through music records and racial barriers, soaring to the top of the charts with his signature, Caribbean-flavored hits while protesting racial hatred and marching with Black civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr.

One of King's children shared this tweet today in honor of Belafonte.

Born in Harlem to immigrants from the West Indies, Belafonte shot to stardom in the 1950s in the segregated U.S., just behind Black entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, who gained popularity despite racial discrimination.

But Belafonte ascended to new heights with hits like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”Both songs were on his album “Calypso,” which was No. 1 on Billboard's album charts in 1956 and remained in the top spot for 31 weeks. 

It was the first album by a solo artist to sell more than 1 million copies.

Though he continued to sing and appear in films, Belafonte's main focus was civil rights activism, aligning with King and others in demanding civil rights in the turbulent 50s and 60s and beyond.

Former President Barack Obama took to Twitter Tuesday to praise Belafonte.

"Harry Belafonte was a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up. He lived a good life – transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style. Michelle and I send our love to his wife, kids, and fans," Obama wrote.

Belafonte was a main donor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

In the 1980s, he helped lead an entertainment and cultural boycott of South Africa over its apartheid practices and contributed to promoting the Live Aid concert and the recording of “We Are the World," a star-studded song that, along with LIve Aid, helped raise money to fight starvation in Africa.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award 2014, for a lifetime of civil rights leadership. 

Belafonte was married three times. His first wife was Marguerite Byrd, with whom he had two daughters, Adrienne and Shari. He had two more children with his second wife, Julie Robinson — a daughter, Gina, and a son, David. In 2008, he married Pamela Frank, who survives him.

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