In Memoriam: Harry Belafonte 1927–2023

April 25, 2023

Born New York City

Harry Belafonte created a sensation in the 1950s, when he introduced Americans to the lilting Caribbean rhythms of calypso with his renditions of such songs as “Day-O (Banana Boat Song).” Belafonte achieved his first success in 1949 as a pop music singer but soon shifted his focus to the American folk songs and traditional West Indian melodies that showcased his talent as a balladeer and reflected his strong social conscience. In 1956, his release of Calypso—the first solo album to sell more than one million copies—launched the craze for this musical genre and established Belafonte as its most popular interpreter. He also appeared in several films, including Carmen Jones (1954) with Dorothy Dandridge.

Believing that his music could help bring people together to work for the common good, Belafonte embraced the dual roles of civil rights activist and humanitarian early in his career and continued to advocate for those in need for the rest of his life.

Close-up photo of a man singing with eyes closed
Harry Belafonte by Herschel Levit/ 1960, Gelatin silver print / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / © Herschel Levit