“I Do Believe He Would Sing”
by Akiba Abaka
When we listen to a vocalist with great command of the breath, we are transported into the world of a song where sound and quality are our main interpreters. In many cases it matters very little the language that the song is written in or the culture and ethnicity of the singer. Great music, often referred to as the universal language of our world, welcomes us all.
In 1923, Roland Hayes, the son of former slaves who would come to sing before kings and queens, visited Europe on a historic tour. As he entered the stage in Berlin, his welcome was a chorus of hissing and name calling from the audience that lasted for ten minutes. Mr. Hayes, a man of small physical stature, stood in complete silence, composed and prepared to share what he once referred to as the overwhelming beauty of what could be done with the voice. When they became quiet, he emerged victorious over the hostile audience with his masterful delivery of Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” and solidified his artistic stature as one of the vocal giants of our time.
Throughout his career Mr. Hayes was confronted with a wall of racial prejudice. With each confrontation, he stood in the power of his breath, delivering the vocal traditions of Europe and African-American work songs come Negro Spirituals with impeccable diction, dignity and exactitude. Of the next generation he was increasingly proud and helpful, paving a path and often contributing financially to the careers of Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, his daughter Afrika Hayes and countless others.
For many, this performance represents a discovery of an African-American man whose breath and voice fought the battles of racism and won, a discovery we make in light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. As the video of Eric Garner made its way through social and televised media, I refused to watch or listen. I could not watch this violent act for fear that it might recall ancestral memories that could trigger a trauma from which I would not recover. Instead, I listened to music, every type of music. I listened for the sound of the universe that would mute the voice in my head that said we had come this far to face the same walls of racism that Roland Hayes released his voice upon like Joshua at the battle of Jericho, and yet these walls have not come tumbling down.
Daniel Beaty’s Breath & Imagination has inspired me to witness fearlessly the video of Eric Garner. Over a period of seventeen seconds I hear him bellow twelve times, his final three words: I can’t breathe. In times like this, art is either put down as unimportant and frivolous or taken up with fervor to score the protest for justice. It is at such moments that I think about the work of Roland Hayes. What of the man who fought with breath and imagination? How would he receive this? How would he respond?
I believe he would sing. He would inhale and exhale and release these songs as a transfiguration. As James Weldon Johnson once remarked, “He would take them high above the earth and shed over them shimmering silver of moonlight and flashes of the sun’s gold; and we would be transported as he sings.” Standing, solid in his breath, this quiet hero…would sing…these songs…with tears on his cheeks.