Harry Belafonte – singer, actor, activist and icon – has died, aged 96

25 April 2023

Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, begins with an account of the time, in 1964, that he raised $70,000 and then travelled across country with his friend Sidney Poitier to hand deliver it to student organisers in Mississippi (who were continuing to register black voters there despite the murder of three volunteers by the KKK).

It is an extraordinary story – and speaks to his principles and courage – but very few people can have lived quite as fascinating or storied a life as Belafonte.

Very few can claim anything like the heights of fame and cultural impact that he achieved as both an actor and a singer (he was the first artist to sell a million LPs, and the first black performer to win an Emmy). What’s even more extraordinary is the way he took that platform he built from himself with his incredible talent, his looks and his charisma, and selflessly dedicated himself to political activism.

He was a confidant of Martin Luther King, and bailed King from Birmingham City Jail. He helped organise the March on Washington and the Freedom Rides.

And his commitment to fighting for what he believed in didn’t waiver over the course of his life. He was a campaigner against Apartheid. He wasn’t afraid to attack George W. Bush and the Iraq War, whatever criticism he received for it. (He called Bush “the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world”. In My Song he writes, “I really did think—still do—that George W. Bush was a terrorist. My only mistake was in calling him the greatest terrorist in the world, since I had not met them all”.)

At Canongate we’re extremely proud to have published My Song, and to have got to work with the incredibly principled, talented, iconic Harry Belafonte.