An actor, singer, filmmaker, activist and a human rights luminary to the end, Harry Belafonte, 96, died today at his home in New York City. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to his longtime spokesperson, Ken Sunshine.
At his star-studded 95th birthday celebration in March 2022, actor Alfre Woodard spoke for many when she said she’d shown up to the event, a fundraiser for his social-change organization Sankofa, because “Harry’s always shown up. For me, for all of us, for everybody around this country and people around the world.” His daughter Gina Belafonte said that her father understood the power of “using art as a message of hope, but also as one of political consequence.”
The child of West Indian immigrants, the man born as Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. became a nightclub sensation, a recording artist, and an actor onstage and on screens big and small. He leveraged his popularity as an entertainer for the cause of justice, starting with the Civil Rights Movement. “Not only was he an artist of the highest order, but Belafonte was also one of the first celebrities who understood the value of his fame and how it could be used to influence social change,” said Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association.
Belafonte’s groundbreaking work on stage, on-screen and in recording studios garnered him a Tony Award, an Emmy and several Grammys. In 2014, Belafonte completed the grand slam of entertainment, the EGOT (signifying Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony wins), but in a way that recognized his compassion and his activism. His Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar statuette wasn’t for a particular film role, but for his stellar work for social justice.
Belafonte was born March 1, 1927, in Harlem. His mother took him to Jamaica to live when he was 7, and they returned to New York five years later. Living with undiagnosed dyslexia, Belafonte left high school, joined the Navy and after World War II worked for a time as a janitor. But when a tenant gave him tickets to the American Negro Theatre, his fate took a culture-changing turn.