Song of the Day: Biography in Music (Day Two). “The CIA Says You’re A Guilty Man, Will We See the Likes of You Again?”

Let Robeson Sing is a song from Manic Street Preachers’ sixth studio album, 2001’s Know Your Enemy, credited to all three band members, James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire.  Released as the fourth and final single from the album, the song is about black American actor, singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson (April 9th 1898 – January 23rd 1976).  Let Robeson Sing centres mostly on Robeson’s advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with communism and his criticism of the United States government which led him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

After graduating from Columbia Law School with a Bachelor of Laws (LLB), in which time he also played football in the National Football League (NFL) and sang and acted in off-campus productions, becoming a participant in the Harlem Renaissance with performances in The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.  Robeson also initiated his international artistic resume with a theatrical role in Great Britain, settling in London for the next several years with his wife Essie.

Robeson’s next performance was as Othello at the Savoy Theatre before he became an international cinema star through his roles in Sanders of the River (1935) …

… and Showboat (1936).

At this time, he became, more so than ever, attuned towards the sufferings of other cultures and peoples.  Many warned that if he became politically active, it would ruin him economically but Robeson acted against this advice, setting aside his theatrical career in order to advocate the cause of the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War.  He then became active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA).

Throughout the Second World War, he supported America’s war efforts and won accolades for another portrayal of Othello, this time on Broadway.  However, his history of supporting pro-Soviet policies brought much scrutiny from the FBI.  Following the end of the Second World War, the CAA was placed on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organisations and Robeson was investigated during the age of McCarthyism.  Due to his decision not to recant his public advocacy of pro-Soviet policies, he was denied a passport by the US State Department, and as a consequence, his income plummeted.  He moved to Harlem and published a periodical critical of United States policies.  Robeson’s right to travel was eventually restored by the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles.

1958 also saw the publication of Robeson’s manifesto / autobiography, Here I Stand.  Following this, he embarked on a world tour using London as his base.  In Moscow in August 1959, he received a standing ovation at the Lenin Stadium where he sang classic Russian songs along with American standards.  Robeson and Essie then flew to Yalta to rest and spend time with Nikita Khrushchev.

On October 11th 1959, Robeson became the first black singer to perform at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.  On a trip to Moscow, he experienced bouts of dizziness and heart problems which resulted in him being hospitalised for two months.  During this time, Essie was diagnosed with operable cancer.  Once recovered, Robeson returned to the UK to visit the National Eisteddfod, a yearly Welsh language festival.  Meanwhile, the State Department had circulated negative literature about him throughout the media in India.

In October 1960, Robeson embarked upon a two month concert tour of Australia and New Zealand with Essie, primarily to generate money but also at the request of Australian politician Bill Marrow.  Whilst in Sydney, he became the first major artist to perform at the construction site of the future Sydney Opera House.  Following his appearance at the Brisbane Festival Hall, they went to Auckland where Robeson reaffirmed his support of Marxism, denouncing the inequality faced by the Maori and efforts to denigrate their culture, publicly stating, “… the people of the lands of Socialism want peace dearly”.  He also became outraged at the deprivation of the Australian Aborigines.  Robeson, consequently, became outraged and demanded the Australian government provide the Aborigines citizenship and equal rights.  He attacked the view of Aborigines as unsophisticated and uncultured, saying, “There’s no such thing as a backward human being, there is only a society which says they are backward”.

Back in London in 1961, Robeson planned to return to the US to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, stopping off in Africa, China and Cuba along the way.  Essie, fearing that Robeson would be killed if he returned to the US and would be unable to make money due to harassment from the US government, argued that they should stay in London.  Robeson disagreed and made his own travel arrangements, stopping off in Moscow in March 1961.

During an uncharacteristically wild party in his Moscow hotel room, he locked himself in his bedroom and attempted suicide by cutting his wrists.  Three days later, whilst under the care of the Barvikha Sanatorium, he confided in his son that he felt extreme paranoia, adding that he felt the walls of his hotel room were moving and that he had become overcome by a powerful sense of emptiness and depression, leading him to attempt suicide.

His son, Paul Jr., believed that his father’s health problems stemmed from attempts by the CIA and MI5 to “neutralise” his father.  He remembered that his father had had similar fears prior to having an operation on his prostate.  He said that three doctors treating Robeson in London and New York had been CIA contractors,and that his father’s symptoms resulted from being subjected to mind depatterning under the CIA’s secret programme, MKUltra. These illegal experiments were intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations and torture, in order to weaken the individual to force confessions through mind control.

Following his stay at the sanatorium until September 1961, Robeson returned to London, where his depression re-emerged and three days after arriving back, he became suicidal and suffered a panic attack whilst passing the Soviet Embassy.  He was admitted to the Priory Hospital.  There, he was given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and heavy doses of drugs for nearly two years.  No psychotherapy was given alongside these treatments.  Throughout his treatment at The Priory, Robeson was monitored by the British MI5.  Both the MI5 and the FBI were well aware that Robeson was suicidal.  The FBI remarked that his “death would be much publicised” and used for Communist propaganda, therefore he required continued surveillance.  It was also advised that his passport not be renewed, something which would greatly jeopardise his recovery.

In August 1963, disturbed about his treatment, friends had Robeson transferred to the Buch Clinic in East Berlin.  He was given psychotherapy and less medication, with physicians expressing anger at the high level of barbiturates and ECT which had been administered in London.  He improved greatly but doctors were keen to stress that what was left of Robeson’s health should be quietly conserved.

In 1963, Robeson returned to the US and lived in seclusion for the remainder of his days.  For a short time, he assumed a role in the Civil Rights Movement and made a few major public appearances.  However, in 1965, he fell seriously ill on a tour with double pneumonia and a kidney blockage, which nearly killed him.  Robeson died on the 23rd January 1976 following complications from a stroke.


Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Three). “Click, Click, Click, Click, Click …”

I could have chosen a number of Manic Street Preachers songs for today’s Song of the Day.  I could have chosen Interiors (Song for Willem De Kooning) from Everything Must Go (1996) about Willem De Kooning’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease and his ability to produce some of the most acclaimed work of his career during this period; I could have chosen Between The Clock and The Bed, from Futurology (2014), named after a 1940 self portrait by Norwegian artist Edward Munch; I could have chosen Black Square from the same album, named in tribute to the 1915 work by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, the originator of the avant-garde Suprematist movement; I could have even chosen La Tristessa Durera (A Scream To A Sigh) from Gold Against The Soul (1993), the title of which is taken from Vincent Van Gogh’s last words.  I considered all of these songs but then decided to look at Kevin Carter from Everything Must Go, which tells the story of the South African photojournalist of the same name.  I then got into a debate with myself over whether photojournalism is a ‘visual art’.  I feel that photojournalism can be a visual art.  In fine art photography, the artist pays careful attention to aspects such as the composition, the focus, the lighting and the poses of the figures in the photograph.  The artist looks for work where everything came together to create something unique.  Art is a communication so therefore, photojournalism is no less disadvantaged than any other form of photography.  In the modern age, museums in many countries show the work of photojournalists as art.

Kevin Carter was born in 1960.  He began his career photographing scenes of the violent struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and became associated with what has come to be known as The Bang Bang Club.  The Bang Bang Club was primarily made up of four photographers (Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva) who were active in the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994, during the transition from the Apartheid system to a government based upon universal suffrage.  Following the lifting of bans on ANC and IFP, there was much black on black factional violence between the supporters of the political parties.  The name The Bang Bang Club was coined by the South African magazine Living.  The group was first described as The Bang Bang Paparazzi but ‘Paparazzi’ was dropped in favour of ‘Club’ as the members felt the term misrepresented their work.  The name is derived from the way in which township residents spoke to the group about the “bang-bang” referring to the violence occurring within their communities.  More literally, “bang-bang” refers to the sound of gunfire and is a colloquialism used by conflict photographers.  Kevin Carter was the first photojournalist to capture a public execution by ‘necklacing’ in South Africa in the Mid-1980s.  He would later say of this:  “The question that still haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced if there was no media coverage?’”  Carter’s professional life with riddled with conflicts between professional responsibilities and moral considerations.  He was also deeply affected by the death of colleague Ken Oosterbroek, who was killed by friendly fire during a fire fight between the National Peacekeeping Force and African National Congress supporters in the Thokoza township on the 18th April 1994.  Greg Marinovich was left seriously injured.

Kevin Carter’s life became irreparably altered in 1993 when he took a picture of a 2 year old Sudanese girl, a famine victim, attempting to make her way to the feeding centre.  As he crouched nearby, Carter saw a vulture landing close to the girl.  Positioning himself as not to disturb the bird of prey, he took the picture which would gain him notoriety when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1994. On winning the much coveted prize, Carter jubilantly wrote to his parents saying. “I swear I got the most applause of anybody.  I can’t wait to show you the trophy. It is the most precious thing, and the highest acknowledgment of my work I could receive”.  However, this initial joy was short lived.

Carter would later admit that he waited for about 20 minutes hoping that the vulture would spread its wings.  Once he realised it would not, he took the photograph and chased the bird away before the girl resumed her struggle.  Following this admission, friends and colleagues of the photographer began to question why Carter had not done more to help the girl and whilst the photograph was highly acclaimed by many, many others were critical of the ethics employed by the photographer.  Following his Pulitzer Prize win, Florida’s St Petersburg Times said of the photograph: “The man adjusting his lens to take the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene”.

Carter’s life was spiraling dangerously out of control.  He began to use drugs heavily in order to help him cope with the guilt that he felt and the adulation he had received for the photograph all over the world, as well as death and destruction he had witnessed.  One of his drugs of choice was ‘dagga’, South Africa’s locally supplied marijuana, which escalated to an addiction to the ‘white pipe’, a lethal mixture of dagga and Mandrax, a banned tranquiliser. He also quit his job working with the Weekly Mail and joined Reuters News Agency with whom he began by covering the country’s first multiracial elections.  Soon though, his job with Reuters would be under threat due to his drug use and the questionable quality of his work.  On one occasion, for example, Carter was told to stay in Cape Town in order to cover French President Francois Mitterrand’s state visit to South Africa.  The story was front page news but according to various sources, Carter sent his film in too late and when the photographs did arrive, there were several complaints that they were too poor to use.  At this time, Carter openly spoke about suicide, on one occasion threatening to smoke a white pipe and gas himself to death.  On the 27th July 1994, racked with guilt and sadness, the 33 year old Kevin Carter parked his pick-up truck near to a place where he used to play and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, leaving a suicide note reading:

“I’m really, really sorry.  The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist … depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger happy madmen, often police, or killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

The Manic Street Preachers’ tribute to Kevin Carter features lyrics written by founding member Richey Edwards, who had disappeared on the 1st February 1995.  Draw parallels if you will to the effects that the imagery expressed in his lyrics and fame had on Edwards to the effects that the imagery expressed in his photographs and fame had on Carter.  A powerful retelling of the life and death of Kevin Carter, the song reached number 9 in the UK singles chart on the 12th October 1996.  The song documents Carter’s rise to fame in the wake of his most famous photograph (“Hi Time Magazine, Hi Pulitzer Prize”), his guilt at not having helped the girl in the photograph and drug use in order to quell feelings of guilt (“Vulture stalked white piped lie forever”), the attitude of some and eventually the photographer himself to his work, describing it as the elephant in the room (“The elephant is so ugly, sleep it’s head”) and his death in the final verse (“Click, click, click, click, click, Click himself under”).  The song Kevin Carter represents the photojournalist’s descent into madness caused by guilt as a result of sacrificing morality for art and his death as a result, as seen through the lens of the world.