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Harry Belafonte, grandson of Dutch Sephardic Jew, dies at age 96

The president called the Calypso singer, actor and activist “legendary.”

Harry Belafonte at the Vienna International Film Festival 2011. Credit: Manfred Werner via Wikimedia Commons.
Harry Belafonte at the Vienna International Film Festival 2011. Credit: Manfred Werner via Wikimedia Commons.

Harry Belafonte, a singer and actor of Jewish descent who brought joy to millions over a long career and challenged Americans to address ongoing social challenges, died in his sleep from congestive heart failure on April 25. He was 96 years old.

Belafonte, whose parents were Jamaican and whose paternal grandfather was a Dutch Sephardic Jew, rose to fame with the success of his 1956 album “Calypso,” the first by a solo artist to sell more than 1 million copies. He also starred in films beginning in the 1950s and continued through 2018.

“Belafonte often joked that it took him 30 years to become an ‘overnight success,’ ” noted the Library of Congress. “He had dropped out of high school after one semester and joined the World War II Navy at age 17. His experience in the military included political education from college-educated soldiers about how the Jim Crow racial status quo would have to be challenged as part of a national system. From this moment on, Belafonte committed himself to ‘help make things different.’ ”

In a statement on Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden called Belafonte “a groundbreaking American who used his talent, his fame, and his voice to help redeem the soul of our nation.”

He described Belafonte’s accomplishments as “legendary,” adding that “his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for human dignity will endure.”

Belafonte refused to perform in the American South from 1954 until 1961. He was an ally of Martin Luther King Jr. and became involved with the Freedom Riders.

Later in life, Belafonte spoke out against U.S. foreign policy, especially the Iraq War, and defended the regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

A portrait of Harry Belafonte singing on Feb. 18, 1954. Credit: Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.
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