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Remembing groundbreaking singer, actor and lifelong activist Harry Belafonte


We learned today that the singer, actor and human rights activist Harry Belafonte died this morning at his home in New York City. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, according to a family representative. He was 96 years old. Harry Belafonte broke racial barriers. He balanced his activism with his artistry in ways that made people around the world listen. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Style, class and charisma. That was Harry Belafonte.


HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day o, day o.

BLAIR: In the 1950s, his recordings for RCA Victor set off a calypso craze.


BELAFONTE: (Singing) Work all night on a drink of rum. Daylight come and me want go home.

BLAIR: With his good looks, his shirt unbuttoned to his chest, audiences Black and white adored Belafonte at a time when most of America was still segregated. He was born in Harlem. His parents were from the Caribbean. His mother, a domestic worker, took him back to her native Jamaica, where he absorbed the island's culture. In 2011, he told NPR the banana boat song was inspired by the vendors he heard singing in the streets.


BELAFONTE: The song is a work song. It's about men who sweat all day long. And they are underpaid, and they're begging for the tally man to come and give them an honest count. Count the bananas that I've picked so I can be paid.


BELAFONTE: (Singing) Lift six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch. Daylight come and me want go home.


BELAFONTE: When people sing and 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.

BLAIR: And that song of rebellion was a smash. The album "Calypso" held a spot at the top of Billboard's album charts for several weeks in 1956. Years earlier, Harry Belafonte dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. After serving in World War II, he was working as a janitor's assistant when someone gave him tickets to a performance at the American Negro Theater. He was riveted. He started training there alongside Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. He started singing in clubs. Pretty soon, he had a recording contract.


BELAFONTE: (Singing) Shake, shake, shake, senora. Shake your body line. Shake, shake, shake, senora. Shake it all the time.

BLAIR: In 1954, he won a Tony Award for acting in a musical called "John Murray Anderson's Almanac." He starred in movies and appeared on TV variety shows. In 1959, he was given a one hour show on CBS. "The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte" had dance numbers, folk songs and both Black and white performers.


BELAFONTE: (Singing) Hava nagila, hava nagila, hava nagila, venis mecha. Hava nagila...

BLAIR: The program won an Emmy Award - the first for an African American. Revlon asked him for more shows. According to Belafonte, southern CBS stations complained about its integrated cast. In interviews, he said he was asked to make it all Black. He says he refused and left the show.

Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most trusted friends. In 1963, he helped organize the Freedom March on Washington, where King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. Clarence Jones, who helped draft the speech, told WHYY's Fresh Air that it was Belafonte who explained to them how to use the power of television.


CLARENCE JONES: He said, you have to look at this as a media event, not just as a march. And so for example, Harry was responsible for assembling what was called the celebrity delegation - a lot of celebrities from Hollywood and performing artists. And he was very firm that they should sit in a certain strategic part on this podium because he knew that the television cameras would pan to them - would look to them. And so he wanted to be sure that they were strategically situated so that, in looking at the celebrities, they'd also see a picture of the march and the other performers.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.


BLAIR: When Dr. King was held in a Birmingham jail, Harry Belafonte raised money to bail him out. Coretta Scott King wrote in her autobiography, whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open. This is Belafonte at a 1966 benefit concert for Dr. King.


BELAFONTE: (Singing) Everybody - Matilda. Sing the chorus - Matilda. Sing the music - Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Including the audience - Matilda. Everybody - Matilda. Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Just the audience...

BLAIR: Throughout his career, Belafonte received numerous honors for his humanitarian work and the arts. He helped organize Nelson Mandela's first trip to the U.S. after he was released from prison. He was also an outspoken critic of people in power, including President Obama, who he once chastised for not showing enough concern for the poor. He singled out African American artists Jay-Z and Beyonce, telling an interviewer they've turned their back on social responsibility. Jay-Z used his next album to respond.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) I'm just trying to find common ground before Mr. Belafonte come and chop a [expletive] down. Mr. Day O, major fail. Respect these youngins, boy. It's my time now.

BLAIR: The two men eventually made up. Harry Belafonte was an activist well into his 90s. He told NPR that was something he learned from his mother.


BELAFONTE: She was tenacious about her dignity not being crushed. And one day she said to me - and she was talking about coming back from a day when she couldn't find work. Fighting back tears, she said, don't ever let injustice go by unchallenged.

BLAIR: As his best friend Sidney Poitier once put it, Harry Belafonte always raised his voice against the dark.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.