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Harry Belafonte Dead at 96: Singer and Civil Rights Activist’s Cause of Death Revealed

Harry Belafonte Dead at 96
Harry Belafonte Sakki/Shutterstock

Harry Belafonte died on Tuesday, April 25. He was 96.

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The legendary singer and actor’s death was caused by congestive heart failure, his representative Ken Sunshine told The New York Times.

The New York native rose to fame in the 1950s with Caribbean-influenced singles like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His album Calypso was one of the first by a solo artist to go platinum, selling over 1 million copies. While known for calypso music, Belafonte also impressed audiences with blues, folk songs and American standards.

As he was launching his music career, he was also acting in films. He and Dorothy Dandridge starred in 1953’s Bright Road and 1954’s Carmen Jones, which skyrocketed his star status.

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While the Tony and Emmy winner enjoyed dominating both the music charts and the box office, Belafonte made it clear that his true passion was as a civil rights activist.

“The portion of my life that is of importance to me has to do with my activism,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 2011. “I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’ My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.”

When he guest-hosted The Tonight Show in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was among the guests (as well as Bobby Kennedy and Paul Newman).

Belafonte was a close friend of the King family. He paid for housekeepers and childcare as King traveled the country and even took out a life insurance policy for the reverend, which proved to be an essential source of financial support for his wife, Coretta Scott King, and their children after his assassination.

“Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open,” Scott King wrote in her 1969 memoir, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.

He later led a campaign against apartheid in South Africa, becoming friends with Nelson Mandela. The humanitarian also supported the fight against HIV/AIDS and is credited with the idea for the song “We Are the World,” the iconic star-studded single that fundraised to fight for hunger in Africa.

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Belafonte is survived by wife Pamela Frank, his four children, two stepchildren and many grandchildren.

He and Marguerite Byrd were married from 1948 to 1957 and had two children, Adrienne and Shari. He and Julie Robinson, who were married from 1957 to 2008, shared Gina and David. In 2008, he married Frank, who had two children from a previous relationship.

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