I never had a chance to meet either of my grandfathers in person. But I have grown to know and love them through the stories that have been passed down to me over the years. In many ways I feel deeply connected to both of them. Like my mother's father, I am a minister. My father's father had a deep love of writing; as do I. I also probably get my political leanings from him.
One of the great stories that I have cherished over the years is the close relationship that my paternal grandfather had with Paul Robeson. I think of the both of them during my daily commute when I bike past the large West Philadelphia home that was Robeson's final resting place and is now known as The Paul Robeson House. I ride by and wonder if the young folks hanging out on the corner appreciate this deeply passionate and socially conscious artist's critical legacy to not only musicians and actors, and not only to progressives and activists, and not even solely to African Americans and U.S. Citizens in general, but to all who have faced suffering and oppression around the world.
The is the second in a series of posts looking at artists whose work is about something far bigger than entertainment. Paul Robeson was really the touchstone for this series. The previous post focused on a new singer/songwriter named Starshell. This piece will look at Paul Robeson and the critical questions he asked of the world during the early part and middle of the previous century and the challenge he has laid before his artistic descendants. In an effort to consider Robeson through the current experience of artists, a multi-talented brother named Rob Murat will be brought into this time-transcending dialogue with the legendary baritone from Princeton, New Jersey. It is to Brother Robeson and my grandfather that I dedicate this one.
"Let my People Go..."
Unquestionably one of the most amazing American lives in the history of this nation, Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey and attended Rutgers Universitywhere he would be only the third African American Student to graduate (he was the only one on campus during his collegiate career). While there he won varsity letters in several sports and was named All-American twice in football. His athletic accomplishments were matched by a stellar academic career earning him Phi Betta Kappa honors at graduation and the selection as the class valedictorian. The years following college he would play professional football, attend Columbia Law School and eventually pass the bar. Yet his true vocational calling would draw him into a life that would see him sing and perform literally around the world.
Beyond his legendary athletic abilities and his brilliant scholarship, Robeson is best known as an Artist and as an Activist. His deep baritone emerges from a deep resolve to fight against oppression everywhere. He did far more than sing "Ol' Man River" and "Go Down Moses." His work encompassed more than setting the standard of how the character Othello is played. Robeson used his gifts to bring attention to the pain and reality of racism, economic oppression, war and violence, and all forms of hate and oppression.
Robeson was one of the biggest celebrities of his day with popularity and wealth assured for his entire career - which was amazing considering that he was a Black man living in the early and mid-20th Century. In short, he did not have to do ANY of the things that he did outside of his art.
But he risked it all. He had the courage to speak out against injustice. He critiqued that which deserved criticism and spoke on behalf of those whose voices are rarely heard. He used the large microphone that he entertained with to also educate and inspire. And it cost him dearly.
The systematic destruction of his career is one of the great tragedies in American history. As his public appearances became more and more politically driven, the harsh governmental response grew in severity. The FBI and other government agencies would work to cancel his scheduled concerts and appearances. Athletic authorities literally erased him from their histories. FBI-placed critical opinion pieces about Robeson began to appear in both domestic and national magazines and journals. After he could no longer perform in the States, he desired to sing overseas where he was still very much beloved, but the State Department revoked his passport trapping him in the nation in which he had been blacklisted. His career was ruined, as was his reputation.
Years later, after the Red Scare of McCarthyism would calm, his freedom to travel would be restored, but he had lost precious years from his career. The music scene had long since shifted to the rock and soul of the 50's and 60's. The Political Activism of the day was now centered in the south in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. His last years were spent mostly quietly in a row house in West Philadelphia. Yet, his deep baritone still comes forth to us today and within each note there seems to be a challenge for contemporary artists to do more than entertain.
"The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative" - Paul Robeson
In nearly every musical or theatrical review of Rob Murat, one will always find the word "soul." Even those who classify his music simply as R&B always describe him as "Soulful." But rather than the great soul singers of the last fifty years like Stevie Wonder, Teddy P. or Marvin, Rob might best be associated with someone more like the great aforementioned Paul Robeson, a reference to a calling beyond his music and art.
Rob Murat's professional journey has a number of notable parallels to Brother Robeson's. Rob graduated from the University of Pennsylvania where he employed his natural baritone (with an easy range reaching up to tenor) and musical gifts in the popular a cappella group The Inspiration. While in college they both became members of the same fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. And also like Robeson, Rob didn't go right into music, rather he used his degree from Penn's Engineering School in the professional world. But his love of art, so easily perceivable in his warm smile, pulled him from the desk to the piano and from the office into the studio.
"When your calling comes upon you, you have to respond." Murat said in a recent interview with Michael Eric Dyson.
Rob's calling, like Robeson's has been one that has drawn out his gifts for music, his gifts for acting, and his deep gifts for caring and for inspiring action in others.
Musically he has broken through with songs like "Know..." which has enjoyed regular play on television outlets, MTV, VH1, and BET, as well as "Dilemma" which has garnered spins on radio airwaves around the country. Rob's live show, often highlighted by a full horn section, is an experience in itself. Beginning later this month, he will be the featured musical act on Paul Carrick Brunson's "It's Complicated" promotional tour sponsored by the OWN Network.
However, Rob, is not just a recording artist and performer, he is a composer/musician. His arrangements and work have been featured on commercials and in television and film productions for companies including Verizon, ESPN, PBS, and HBO.
Most recently Rob, like Robeson, has moved into the acting world. First starting with small roles on shows like The Good Wife on CBS and now into more prominent roles like the upcoming feature film, Reunion 108, and the much anticipated Off-Broadway production, Helen of Troy, in which he will take on the role of Theoclymenus, king of Egypt.
Rob is a triple threat. He sings and he acts. And while I'm sure he can dance, dancing is not his third "threat." Along with his musical and theatrical abilities, his third threat is his passionate activism on behalf of those in need. In some ways this is what has brought him the most acclaim.
Rob is a Native New Yorker, but he is of Haitian decent. After the devastating earthquake that struck the island and took the life of a close family member in 2010, Rob released the song "Souls" , a track that captures the hurt, yet enduring hope and strength of a people.
"Aint no pain, ain't no strain, gonna get in the way Aint no rain, no hurricane, gonna put us away, We don't live plush, we ain't got much, But that don't mean a thing 'Cause we got soul, soul, soul... There's something 'bout the souls Of my people I'm talking 'bout the souls Of my beautiful folks And even though we're poor We're hopeful. And even though we're poor, oh we hope."
This song, which was the winning R&B song in The John Lennon Songwriting Competition a few years ago, ended up being performed at numerous benefits to help raise money for relief efforts after the earthquake.
Rob didn't have to write that song. He didn't have to do any of this. He could have just continued with his career, which has had a steady trajectory upwards, and ignored world events completely.
But here is the beautiful thing. When Rob decided to write "Souls," which is so much about helping and serving others, it was ultimately a blessing not only to those trying to rebuild and not only to those whose eyes were opened and whose hearts were touched by the song, but it was a blessing to Rob's career. It led to major media interviews and appearances that have grown his fan base and opened some exciting doors.
But I think Rob would have written it regardless of all of those great opportunities.
And this, not only his deep soulful voice or his presence on stage as both a singer and an actor, is the greatest sign that he is one of Paul Robeson's artistic offspring. The art world needs more artists like Paul Robeson - artists who don't just donate occasionally to charity, but artists who take risks by singing about and talking about things that may not be popular, but are important nonetheless.
We need artists with souls.
To learn more about Rob Murat meet him here: http://www.robmurat.com/
And to learn more about Paul Robeson you can visit here: http://paulrobesonhouse.org/
Follow Charles Howard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Chaz_Howard