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Harry Belafonte, ‘King of Calypso’ and LGBTQ ally, dies at 96

Civil rights icon was grand marshal of 2013 NYC Pride parade



Harry Belafonte presenting the 36th Kennedy Center Honors tribute to fellow musician Carlos Santana, December 8, 2013. (Screenshot via CBS Entertainment)

A rainbow banner slung over his right shoulder proudly proclaimed the spry octogenarian a “Grand Marshal 2013” of the New York City LGBT Pride March, joining another vibrant octogenarian, Edith “Edie” Windsor, who was also a “Grand Marshal 2013” that bright sunny June day.

Between the two of them, the honor was an acknowledgement of a long journey not only for LGBTQ rights, but for Harry Belafonte, the beloved African American actor, singer, humanitarian, and the acknowledged “King of Calypso” especially, an honored recognition of his decades of accomplishments and commitment to the civil rights movement and allyship to the LGBTQ community.

Born March 1, 1927, in New York, Belafonte was the son of Caribbean-born immigrants, and, growing up, he split his time between Harlem and Jamaica. Dropping out of high school in New York to enlist in the U.S. Navy, he went on to contribute to the war effort from 1944 to 1945.

At the time, the military services were segregated. Belafonte, a Jamaican American, was assigned to Port Chicago, Calif., 35 miles from San Francisco. 

During World War II, Black service members were not normally assigned to frontline fighting units. Rather, they were assigned mostly to supporting specialties. His job was to load military ships bound for the Pacific theater. 

Just before Belafonte arrived in Port Chicago, Calif., a massive explosion took place, involving military ships loaded with ammunition. About 320 people were killed — two-thirds of them Black sailors.

“It was the worst homefront disaster of World War II, but almost no one knows about it or what followed,” he said.

Discharged in 1945, Belafonte returned home to New York. He used his GI Bill benefits to pay for his acting classes at Erwin Piscator’s the New School Dramatic Workshop, alongside future actors Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, and what was to develop into lifelong friendship, actor Sidney Poitier.

He performed with the American Negro Theater while studying at the Dramatic Workshop. It was a singing role that resulted in a series of cabaret engagements, and eventually, Belafonte even opened his own club. In 1949, he launched his recording career on the Jubilee label, and in 1953, he made his debut at the legendary jazz club, the Village Vanguard.

He also appeared on Broadway in the 1953 “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” a performance that won him a Tony Award.

Belafonte’s first widely released single, which became his signature audience participation song in virtually all of his live performances, was “Matilda,” recorded on April 27, 1953.

With a lead role in the film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, Belafonte shot to stardom. After signing to the RCA label, he released Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, which reached the number three slot on the Billboard charts.

His breakthrough third studio album “Calypso” (RCA Victor-1956) became the first long-playing record in the world to sell over 1 million copies within a year. The album introduced American audiences to calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the King of Calypso.

Besides calypso, he also recorded blues, folk, gospel, show tunes and American standards from “The Great American Songbook” as it is known that included works from George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

During the late 1950’s he performed during the so-called Rat Pack-era in Las Vegas. He and pianist Liberace, musician and singer Ray Vasquez, and singer Sammy Davis, Jr., were featured at the Sands Hotel and Casino and the Dunes Hotel.

Belafonte also became television’s first African-American producer, and his special “Tonight with Harry Belafonte” won an Emmy award in 1960. It was during this time period that he became proactively engaged in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s including    the1963 Freedom March in D.C..

Belafonte befriended the leader of the movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom he maintained close ties until King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

He was also friends with New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, often spending time with Kennedy during the latter’s run for the U.S. Senate and also during the 1968 presidential campaign, which ended tragically after Kennedy was shot in the kitchen pantry area at the Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968. Kennedy died the next day on June 6, 1968, at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Prior to RFK’s assassination, on April 24, 1968, Belafonte interviewed Kennedy while guest hosting for Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, Belafonte refocused his efforts toward humanitarian causes, including joining with famed producer Quincy Jones and singer Michael Jackson on the USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” project on March 7, 1985. Rolling Stone wryly noted in its article about the recording and humanitarian fundraiser, that the 46 star vocalists who showed up may have formed the ultimate musical supergroup of all time.

First lady Barbara Bush, standing in for her husband President George Herbert Walker Bush, presented the 12th Annual Kennedy Center Honors to Belafonte, along with his fellow honorees actress Mary Martin, dancer Alexandra Danilova, actress Claudette Colbert and composer William Schuman during a White House East Room ceremony on Dec. 3, 1989.

Two years previously, in 1987, he was appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, replacing Danny Kaye as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador. His appointment as Goodwill Ambassador came 27 years after then President John F. Kennedy appointed Belafonte the first member of the entertainment industry to serve as cultural advisor to the Peace Corps.

In 1994, he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton. He has also been awarded the Ronald McDonald House Charities’ Award of Excellence in recognition of his humanitarian work and the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award for 25 years of service to UNICEF.

In October 2017 he was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom Medal by the Roosevelt Institute in New York, the citation reading in part:

“In the decades since, you have been involved in campaigns to fight apartheid and bring relief to the world’s poorest. You founded We Are the World, which brought together some of the greatest talents in music to draw attention to and take on the scourge of famine in Africa. You have always used your platform to call out injustice and violence and make sure we never stopped believing that a more just, beautiful world was possible. Your voice — your life — has been a beacon of hope, comfort and inspiration to generations.”

Belafonte also served on the board of Americans for the Arts (formerly known as the American Council for the Arts) for many years. He has four children — Shari, Adrienne, Gina and David — and three grandchildren — Rachel, Brian and Maria. He lived with his wife photographer Pamela Frank who he had married in 2008.

“Keep the Promise” World AIDS Day Concert and March in Hollywood 2016
(Photo Courtesy of AHF)

“The world is a little dimmer today in losing such a legendary entertainer as Harry Belafonte but so much richer for having had such a tireless, lifelong humanitarian and activist for so many years. Rest easy, kind sir, after a job well done,” said Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

“Belafonte leveraged his considerable and deserved celebrity for a myriad of causes over his lifetime, including the fight against HIV and AIDS. It was both humbling and a privilege for AHF to thank and honor him in person for his lifetime of activism and compassion.”

Courtesy of AHF

In 2016, AHF honored Belafonte with its Lifetime Achievement Award during its “Keep the Promise” World AIDS Day Concert and March in Hollywood, Calif.

Ever the activist, Belafonte, then 89, joined marchers for a brief but poignant portion of the march down Hollywood Boulevard.

The march commemorated the millions who have died of AIDS while also serving as a reminder to the world that of the then 36.7 million people living with AIDS worldwide, only 17 million had access to lifesaving antiretroviral treatment.

Belafonte received the AHF award during the concert that followed at the Dolby Theater featuring Patti LaBelle, Common and others who also paid tribute to the humanitarian icon.

The White House issued a statement from President Joe Biden on Belafonte’s death:

“Jill and I are saddened by the passing of a groundbreaking American who used his talent, his fame, and his voice to help redeem the soul of our nation. 

Harry Belafonte was born to Caribbean parents in Harlem, New York on March 1, 1927, when segregation was the order of American society. To our Nation’s benefit, Harry never accepted those false narratives and unjust boundaries. He dedicated his entire life to breaking barriers and bridging divides.

As a young man motivated to find his purpose, he became mesmerized by theater when he saw a performance of the American Negro Theater in Manhattan. As one of America’s original breakthrough singers and performers, he would go on to garner a storehouse of firsts — the first Black matinee idol, the first recording artist to sell over a million records, the first Black male Broadway actor to win a Tony award, the first Black producer to win an Emmy award, and one of the highest paid entertainers of his time, among other accolades.

But he used his fame and fortune for the public good throughout his extraordinary career. He became a powerful ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other giants of the Civil Rights Movement. He raised money and donated resources to post bail for activists jailed for acts of civil disobedience. He provided the critical funds to launch the Freedom Rides. 

He lobbied against apartheid in South Africa, for the release of Nelson Mandela, and was one of the visionaries behind ‘We Are the World,’ an innovative record released to raise millions of dollars to support humanitarian aid in Sudan and Ethiopia. For these and other humanitarian and artistic efforts he was conferred with a Kennedy Center Honor, the National Medal of the Arts, and a Grammy lifetime achievement award.  

Harry Belafonte’s accomplishments are legendary and his legacy of outspoken advocacy, compassion, and respect for human dignity will endure. He will be remembered as a great American.

We send our deepest condolences to his family and legions of admirers across the country and the world.”


Additional research and materials from the Defense Department, the Kennedy Center Honors, UNICEF, the John F. Kennedy Library, the George Bush Library, the William J. Clinton Library, the George W. Bush Library, the Barack Obama Library, RCA Records, AFI and the Recording Academy.


Celebrity News

John Waters released from hospital after car accident

Crash took place in Baltimore County



John Waters (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

BY TAJI BURRIS | Baltimore filmmaker John Waters was released from the hospital Tuesday morning following a car accident.

The 78-year-old released a statement saying that although he was hurt in the Baltimore County crash, he did not sustain major injuries.

The rest of this article can be found on the Baltimore Banner’s website.

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Celebrity News

More than 1 million people attend Madonna concert in Rio

Free event took place on Copacabana Beach on Saturday



Madonna performs on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach on May 4, 2024. (Screen capture via Reuters YouTube)

An estimated 1.6 million people on Saturday attended Madonna’s free concert on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach.

The concert, which was the last one as part of Madonna’s Celebration Tour, included a tribute to people lost to AIDS.

Bob the Drag Queen introduced Madonna before the concert began. Pabllo Vittar, a Brazilian drag queen and singer, and Anitta, a bisexual pop star who was born in Rio’s Honório Gurgel neighborhood, also joined Madonna on stage.

Congresswoman Erika Hilton, a Black travesti and former sex worker, and Rio Municipal Councilwoman Mônica Benício, the widow of Marielle Franco, a bisexual Rio Municipal Councilwoman who was assassinated in 2018, are among those who attended the concert.

“Madonna showed that we fight important fights for the human rights of Black (people), young (people), women and LGBTQIA+ people, and against all injustice, discrimination, and violence,” said Associaçao Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals), a Brazilian trans rights group known by the acronym ANTRA, on its X account. “What they call identitarianism’ is our subversion to the retrograde and conservative tackiness that plagues the country.”

The Associated Press reported the concert was Madonna’s biggest ever.

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Celebrity News

HRC releases ‘Queer Renaissance Syllabus’

Beyoncé’s hit album inspired curriculum



Beyoncé performs at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on Aug. 6, 2023. The Human Rights Campaign has released a curriculum that her "Renaissance" album inspired. (Washington Blade photo by Isabelle Kravis)

In a move aimed at celebrating the beauty, brilliance and resilience of the LGBTQ community, the Human Rights Campaign unveiled the “Queer Renaissance Syllabus” that Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” album inspired. 

Curated by Justin Calhoun, Leslie Hall and Chauna Lawson of the HRC’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program, the syllabus includes a variety of academic articles, essays, films and other media rooted in Black queer and feminist studies. Each piece is directly inspired by the tracks on Beyoncé’s Billboard 200-topping dance album, “Renaissance.”

Beyoncé’s album “Renaissance” stands as a cultural milestone, celebrating the Black queer roots of dance music while shedding light on overlooked Black queer artists. Inspired by her late-Uncle Johnny, the album not only garnered critical acclaim but also shed light on the often marginalized contributions of Black queer artists. Winning four Grammys and yielding chart-topping hits like “Break My Soul” and “Cuff It,” the album sparked discussions about economic impact and cultural representation.

Amid its success, legislative challenges arose, with Florida and Texas enacting bans on DEI initiatives in public colleges. Recognizing the album’s transformative potential, HRC developed the “Queer Renaissance Syllabus” to leverage its impact for education and activism.

Tailored for educators, youth-serving professionals, DEI practitioners, higher education leaders and admirers of Beyoncé’s artistry, the syllabus aims to encourage meaningful discussions, enrich lesson plans, and explore innovative ways to honor the vibrancy and significance of LGBTQ individuals and their culture.

With six themes anchoring the syllabus, ranging from “intersectionality and inclusivity” to “social justice and activism,” it provides a comprehensive exploration of various facets of LGBTQ experiences and expressions. Fan-favorite tracks from the album are paired with scholarly readings, offering insights into empowerment, self-acceptance and the transformative power of artistic expression. The syllabus also reinforces HRC’s efforts to highlight, amplify and re-center Black and queer voices.

By providing links to articles, books, podcasts and interviews, each associated with a song from the album, it celebrates the rich cultural heritage and contributions of the Black queer community.

The concluding section of the syllabus includes Beyoncé’s tribute to O’Shea Sibley, a young Black queer person who was murdered in Brooklyn, N.Y., last July while voguing to “Renaissance” songs at a gas station. HRC also includes a statement that condemns hate crimes.

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