|Stogie Kenyatta as Paul Robeson in The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson. (Photo by Lexi Lewis)|
"Nations go to war, but it’s always our culture that unites us.” – Stogie Kenyatta as Paul Robeson in The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson.Rarely do a song’s lyrics reflect the life of its singer, particularly one whose life is largely unknown today. Yet the African American, Paul Robeson, was possibly the most gifted artist – a polymath who could speak and sing in fourteen languages – and one of the most courageous activists of the twentieth century. Although he had appeared at the Cotton Club as a singer in Harlem in the early 1920s, Robeson’s career as an artist was inaugurated in 1928 when he performed the part of Joe in the London production of Show Boat (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II), which had been a huge hit in New York. The musical chronicles the lives of people working on a Mississippi River showboat, and its black characters reflected the era’s stereotypes. Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” that was specifically written for him, was its most memorable number, no doubt enhanced by his rich baritone voice and large physical presence, and became one of his trademark songs whose lyrics evolved throughout his career. In the 2006 Criterion tribute to Robeson, Sydney Poitier narrates with illustrative visual clips how the words changed as Robeson and the world changed. Beginning with “Niggers all work on the Mississippi,” he altered the word “niggers” to “darkies” within a few years And when he made the film version in 1936, he transformed the opening line entirely to “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi; that’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.” He also eventually changed the defeatist line “I’m tired of livin’ and feared of dyin’” to the more political “We must keep fightin’ until we’re dying” that he first sang in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, a day that the war stopped so that both sides could hear the man sing. This last lyrical alteration signified his shift from subservience to militancy, and his capacity for seamlessly weaving his artistry with his politics. That trend accelerated after the Second World War in a concert in Warsaw: “The Mississippi was no longer the man I want to be.” From being the most famous black man in the world triumphing artistically and commercially in theatre, film and on the concert stage – and an icon to Welsh miners, anti-lynching marchers in the American south, and anti-fascists everywhere – he became one of the most reviled activists in his native country after the Second World War for his outspoken support for the Soviet Union and his scathing criticism of the United States.