His name would have been recognized with admiration and gratitude anywhere around the world, but Harry Belafonte was born and always made his home right here in New York City, up until this week, when the celebrated singer, actor and civil rights icon passed away at age 96 in his Upper West Side home.
Belafonte dropped out of George Washington High School to join the Navy during WWII, and began his musical career playing storied clubs like the Royal Roost and the Village Vanguard, polishing up his folk-music sound as he ascended.
Then, it was in a Harlem church basement that the Harlem native first met close friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he would go on to march with. Among the stops he arranged many years later for newly freed South African civil rights legend Nelson Mandela was a packed speech at Yankee Stadium. He was of New York and made New York better in turn.
Belafonte’s early and runaway success — being, by age 30, the first artist to ever sell more than a million full-length records via his third album, “Calypso,” not to mention a flourishing career in films — would have enabled him to live in perpetual comfort and uncontroversial celebrity for the rest of his life, but that was not enough for him. Belafonte constantly risked, and sometimes lost, professional opportunities to his uncompromising nature, for perceived transgressions as small as sharing a stage with a white woman.
For decades, as he kept singing and bringing the musical styles of his parents’ native Jamaica to broader audiences, Belafonte preoccupied himself with social causes, advocacy and action. Sometimes, these interests and talents came together, as with 1985′s “We are the World,” the single that raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia. In all cases, the famed singer of the “Banana Boat Song” asked himself how he could be part of a greater cause than himself.
“I wasn’t an artist who became an activist,” he said, “I was an activist who became an artist.”