Harry Belafonte, who died April 25 at the age of 96, would have enjoyed guaranteed cultural immortality even if all he ever did was record “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” in 1956. But he did so much more, busting racial barriers with his success as an artist and battling racial injustices with his courage as an activist.
As a singer, Belafonte became the first individual performer to sell a million records and performed at President Kennedy’s inauguration; he was later instrumental in driving USA For Africa’s “We Are the World” project. As an actor, Belafonte predated his friend Sidney Poitier as Hollywood’s first Black leading man in a time of rampant segregation, and he acted opposite the likes of Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, John Travolta, and the Muppets. He was the first Black performer to win an Emmy, and with his honorary humanitarian Oscar he’s one of the few people ever to achieve EGOT status. His final film appearance came 65 years after his first one, in Spike Lee’s 2018 BlacKkKlansman.
But even though Belafonte’s creative gifts reaped musical and film successes that most artists only dream of, he engaged in those activities only intermittently; his true passion was civil rights. He partnered with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, inviting his white movie star friends to further broaden the event’s visibility. He confronted racism in his artistic work and turned down roles he considered too stereotypical. Even his first hit, “Day-O,” was basically a protest song. Unlike celebrities whose performative politics are more of an accessory, Belafonte’s art and activism were inseparable. He walked the walk and put his literal money where his mouth was.