Paul Robeson’s Love Song, presented by Tayo Aluko and Friends, 28 May

Paul Robesons Love Song

The School of Arts have teamed up with WoWFest2021, with students from across the School previewing events from this festival of radical writing, taking place throughout May. 

Saadiqa Salisu (MA, English) previews Paul Robeson’s Love Song, presented by Tayo Aluko and Friends, Friday 28 May, 2 pm. Tickets £10/£7 concessions.

Tayo Aluko’s connection to the legendary Paul Robeson was initiated through the former’s own singing career. After one of Aluko’s singing shows in Liverpool, a perceptive fan mentioned that the performance had reminded her of Robeson. Two months later, Aluko – who had never previously heard of the African-American legend – stumbled across Robeson’s biography and became fascinated with his story. The play, which was recorded during lockdown, is presented in an online format, and brings light to Robeson’s forgotten story and its significance in black history.  

Robeson epitomised a version of the American dream, rising from poverty to a prestigious law career in New York. But the American dream proved ephemeral and the nightmarish reality of institutional racism and everyday prejudice forced Robeson to forgo his legal career in favour of performing. Robeson took to the stage and appeared in a number of successful plays and films, but it was his baritone voice that propelled him to national stardom. Tens of thousands of Americans flocked to see him singing live and his career took him across the pond to London where he appeared in popular film, Showboat. It was there in 1928 that he accidentally came across a group of Welsh miners who had marched from their homes to London to protest poor working conditions and unfair wages. This was the start of Robeson’s interest in and passion for socialism, as he realised that many more people could benefit from a political structure that took care of a working class made up of all ethnicities. 

Robeson’s connection with the Welsh working class is still talked about today amongst the children and grandchildren of those original working communities. Aluko’s play focuses particularly on the Peekskill riots, which were sparked after Robeson’s continued passion for socialism led him to say the following, according to Martin Duberman, Robeson’s biographer: 

“We in America do not forget that it is on the backs of the poor whites of Europe…and on the backs of millions of black people the wealth of America has been acquired. And we are resolved that it shall be distributed in an equitable manner among all of our children, and we don’t want any hysterical stupidity about our participating in a war against anybody no matter whom. We are determined to fight for peace. We do not wish to fight the Soviet Union.”

Instead, the Associated Press reported that he said the following:

“It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.” 

Robeson’s true commentary presents a vision of interracial unity amongst the working class, focusing on the real issues of social justice, fair wages for labour, equal rights and good working hours. The intersections of race and class are a contentious issue as we see in our own country, in conversations about the implicitly white ‘left-behind working-class’ pitted against the fight for racial equality and equal opportunity in false culture wars. Robeson saw the power of a collective workers’ struggle that could attack the barriers to progression from across communities. Perhaps it was the potential power of this solidarity, promoted by one of America’s leading stars, that created so much fear amongst the establishment. 

Even as early as 1949, the use of technology was being weaponised to create fake news for political agendas. The Communist association in the historical context of pre-Second World War America was too much for Robeson’s career to withstand and he was branded the ‘Black Stalin’, banned from performing in hundreds of locations in which he was due to sing. In an act of resistance, Robeson persisted with one of the few concerts that he was due to perform at in Peekskill, determined to sing for peace and social justice. For Robeson, his musical gift was a powerful means of conveying his message. However, the fabricated comments combined with the anti-Communist rhetoric effectively endorsed the angry mob that went to Peekskill. Robeson’s effigy was lynched and burned, and although the concert went ahead with no harm, the ensuing violence by county militia and civilians was largely encouraged and ignored by the police. 

Aluko’s play is set in 2020 during the modern equivalent of the Peekskill riots. The story is woven around two siblings who find a possible connection between their late grandmother and Paul Robeson. As they watch the televised Kenosha riots, they remember their mother’s account of the Peekskill concert. The 2020 events in Kenosha were sparked by the shooting of an African-American man. The consequent protesting against police brutality sparked anger amongst right-wing vigilantes, fascists and state militia groups, who were opposed to the so-called unpatriotic response of the protestors. The same anti-Semitic, racist rhetoric and unprovoked violence seen in Peekskill was mirrored in Kenosha. In both cases, the violence was incited by groups claiming to be acting in defence of America, but their destructiveness and disregard for fellow Americans, their businesses, or their right to hold different beliefs says otherwise. In Kenosha, as well as Peekskill, police and state troopers were recorded actively supporting civilian militia groups, effectively endorsing the hate and violence against the so-called audacious calls for social and racial equality and justice. Aluko’s story offers an opportunity to reflect on the rate of social equality in America across the last 70 years, as well as reminding us of events closer to home. 

The 1981 Brixton riots sparked by police brutality and 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence are stains on our own nation’s history. They tell the story of institutional racism and social inequality not dissimilar to events seen in the USA. More recently, the 2016 Brexit referendum unearthed a worrying rhetoric of division sparked by frustration from the working class around Eastern European migrant workers and settled ethnic minorities. Questions about national identity, belonging and current social structures continue to be discussed because of the split from Europe. Worryingly, the rise of far-right nationalists, and racism, has been seen all over Europe as working-class conditions are still unfavourable. Paul Robeson’s life story explores the complicated concepts of belonging and patriotism for African-Americans and, by extension, black Britons. Aluko’s play offers an opportunity to question our own history of racial justice, institutional racism and understanding of the black British community. 

Part of WoWFest21: celebrating 21 years of radical writing. Check out the full programme here.