Harry Belafonte, who died on April 25, 2023, at age 96, was a true Renaissance man in his decades’ long career. He made a name for himself as an accomplished singer, actor and activist.

Born in Harlem, “The King of Calypso,” was actually of Jamaican descent, and he infused Caribbean culture into his music.

According to his spokesman, the cause of death was congestive heart failure.

Belafonte’s “Feel Good” Music, Also Spoke Of Hardship and Rebellion

Belafonte described Day-O (The Banana Boat song), as “a song of rebellion.”

In an interview with NPR in 2011, he explained, “it’s about men who sweat all day long. They’re underpaid, and they’re begging the tallyman to come and give them an honest count — counting the bananas that I’ve picked, so I can be paid.”

You’d be hard pressed to find anybody of Caribbean descent who is unfamiliar with that song. Released in 1956, this “call and response” track has an instantly recognizable and catchy chorus: “Come Mr. Tally Man, tally me banana. Daylight come and me wan’ go home.”

Day-O referenced Jamaican history. For many years, sugar was the country’s main export. But, as noted by The New Yorker, this changed around 1890. Due to “an assortment of wars, acts of God, and political upheavals,” bananas replaced sugar as the island’s most desired product.

Jump in the Line (Shake Señora), is a calpyso classic. However, it was technically a cover. It was written by calyposonian Lord Kitchener, in 1946. In 1961, Belafonte’s version earned widespread acclaim, and it’s been sampled repeatedly. A recent example is Shake Señora, by Pitbull, Sean Paul and T-Pain.

Jamaica Honored Belafonte Twice In Recent Years

When Belafonte’s mother took him to her native Jamaica, it sparked his affinity for the island. In time, Jamaica returned that love.

In 2022, Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, announced that a highway would be named after Belafonte. He did this in honor of Belafonte’s activism, and his 95th birthday.

The prime minister said, “the government and people of Jamaica, will name one of our highways after our titan, in recognition of the long road to freedom Harry Belafonte has traversed on behalf of our people.”

That wasn’t the first time Jamaica showed deference to Belafonte. In 2018, it awarded him the Order of Merit, in recognition of his music. This is one of Jamaica’s top honors. Sadly, due to health issues, Belafonte was unable to accept it in person.

Belafonte Used His Platform To Decry Numerous Injustices

From racism, to world hunger, and violence against women, Belafonte criticized injustice in all its forms. He donated time and money to furthering the Civil Rights movement, knowing it might jeopardize his entertainment work.

He was close with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, according to CNN, “Dr. King often retired to Belafonte’s palatial New York apartment to talk strategy, or escape the pressures of leading the Civil Rights movement.”

In a 2014 speech, Belafonte encouraged an end to the oppression of women. He was particularly incensed by the brutalization of women in the Congo, South Africa, and the United States, among other places.

“Let us use this century to be the century when we said we started the mission to end the violence and oppression of women,” he said. “Let us never, ever, let our children become the abusers to our women that we permitted in our lifetime.”

Belafonte considered his activism to be more important than his creative work. He stated, “I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.”