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.