The key was awarded for his decades of entertainment in music, film, theater, and television, as well as his leadership on national civil rights issues, which included playing a major role in the March on Washington nearly 60 years ago. Known as the “King of Calypso,” Belafonte was a singular, multigenerational, international cultural trailblazer.
“The legacy of Harry Belafonte — from music to movies to civil rights — is unparalleled,” said Mayor Adams. “He balanced artistry and activism with a voice that pushed through racial boundaries and transcended the confines of the recording studio. When daylight comes and we can all go home, it’s because Harry led the way in letting the light shine through. I am honored to present Harry Belafonte, through his family, with a Key to the City of New York.”
Belafonte was one of the most prolific performers in history. Born in Harlem to West Indian immigrants, Belafonte served in World War II before training at the American Negro Theatre. He received a Tony Award for starring in the Broadway revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac: A Musical Harlequinade” in 1954, followed by an Emmy Award — the first for an African American performer — for his CBS special, “Tonight with Belafonte.” During this time, Belafonte also starred in movies and launched his recording career, releasing the breakthrough album “Calypso” in 1956, which included “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell” and introduced mainstream audiences to calypso music. Belafonte would go on to win numerous additional accolades — becoming one of the few to earn the “EGOT” title, meaning he’s won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. Belafonte was a two-time Grammy Award winner and a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994, and the Academy Awards’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.
Offscreen, Belafonte dedicated his career to social justice and civil rights. A dynamic force during the Civil Rights Movement, Belafonte played a major role in the March on Washington in 1963. He spearheaded numerous national and international initiatives — such as the recording of the charity single “We Are the World” for African famine relief
The Key to the City of New York was first awarded in 1702 by New York City Mayor Phillip French, when he offered “Freedom of the City” to Viscount Edward Cornbury, the then-governor of New York and New Jersey. By the mid-1800s, it became customary to award the Key to the City of New York as a direct symbol of the city’s wish that a guest feel free to come and go at will. Today, the Key to the City of New York is a beloved symbol of civic recognition and gratitude reserved for individuals whose service to the public and the common good rises to the highest level of achievement.
Photo credit: 1) Adams administration honors Harry Belafonte, through his family, with a Key to the City of New York by Seitu Oronde. 2) Harry Belafonte, 1950-60.
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