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Harry Belafonte, Caribbean Music Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer, Dies at 96

Performer was known for '50s hits such as 'The Banana Boat Song' and 'Jump in the Line'
Jamaican-American singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte performing at the Riviera in Las Vegas, 1957. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Harry Belafonte, a calypso-popularizing music legend and tireless civil rights activist, died at 96 of congestive heart failure today (April 25) at his Manhattan home. Belafonte was the world’s first Caribbean-American pop star when he rose to international fame in the 1950s and was involved in film, TV, theater, and philanthropic work well into his 90s.

Belafonte’s handsome presence and breezy, endearing calypso hits, such as the “day-o”-highlighted “The Banana Boat Song,” “Jump in the Line,” and “Jamaican Farewell,” brought the genre to listeners around the world, but he also recorded albums featuring folk, blues, and Broadway favorites throughout his career.

Born in 1927 in New York to Jamaican parents, Belafonte worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the American Civil Rights Movement gained steam in the 1950s and ’60so and was an outspoken advocate for the abolition of apartheid in South Africa as well as a youth ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union.

That commitment to goodwill was also apparent in his work helping organize the star-studded 1985 charity single “We Are the World,” proceeds from which went to African famine relief.

Last year, Belafonte became the oldest living inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when he was enshrined in the Early Influence category.