On the Occasion of Commemorating the Life and Contributions of Paul Robeson: The Role of the Artist-Activist



Today, I was invited to pay tribute to one of our fearless scholar activist, Paul Robeson. As the African-American fellow in the United Nations Programme for People of African Descent in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, I was honored to share remarks on one of the finest scholar-activist that our community ever produced. Please allow me to share those remarks with you:

“The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen … Perhaps it can’t be done without the poet, but it certainly can’t be done without the people. The poet and the people get on generally very badly, and yet they need each other. The poet knows it sooner than the people do. The people usually know it after the poet is dead; but that’s all right. The point is to get your work done, and your work is to change the world.” 
― James Baldwin

Good afternoon,

I am Shantrelle P. Lewis, an African-American curator and researcher. I would like to thank the World Against Racism Network for organizing this wonderful program and inviting me to share a few words, commemorating the 116th Birthday of the world renowned African-American renaissance man, Paul Robeson. As our colleague Jan stated, April 8th falls between the monumental dates of two giants – the death of Touissant L’Ouverture, architect of the Haitian Revolution, who died in a freezing cell a short distance away from here in Fort de Joux and the birthdate of one of the brightest sons that Afro-America ever produced, the world renowned Renaissance man, Paul Robeson. Before I begin, I must also thank the Orisha and my own Egun, the term we use in the Lukumi tradition to identify our ancestors, for bestowing upon me good health and allowing me to be present before you today. I would like to pay tribute to our ancestors, both African and indigenous, for instilling within us the power and notion of resistance. I would also like to acknowledge all of the elders in this room, including my co-panelists, on whose shoulders my generation stands. Thank you for your bravery, commitment foresight and leadership. I am indeed inspired by your insights and words. Lastly, I am honored to share words on behalf as a member of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and representative of the Museum of Contemporary African Art in commemoration on this fine occasion.

We have gathered today, to acknowledge the life, legacy, work, bravery, sacrifices and philosophy of Paul Robeson. Paul Robeson – Intellectual, attorney, athlete, baritone, scholar, activist, and artist –  he wore all of these hats and many more. Traveling around the world, enchanting millions whose mother tongues were different languages and whose complexions ranged from the palest of Europeans to the most melanated Africans and Asians, Paul Robeson left a profound impression on any and every one he encountered. He, the chameleon was ever shape-shifting. Since my esteemed co-panelists have already provided an elaborate portrait of such an extraordinary being. Thus, I would like to focus on two aspects of Paul Robeson, the framework that informed his role as artist-activist and the significant role of the artist activist today.

Paul Robeson’s advocacy for the assertion of human rights, particularly for Black People, largely can be credited to the mentorship he received from the imminent Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois. While oftentimes misunderstood, Du Bois’ theory of the Talented Tenth can be largely credited for the 20th Century Pan-African call for the responsibility of leadership in the Global Black community. His theories are best seen expressed in the actions of the artists-activists, such as Paul Robeson, and later, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, on whom, he had significant influence.

At this point, I would like to reference Du Bois’ 1926 Criteria of Negro Art. In this critical speech he stated: “I do not doubt but there are some in this audience who are a little disturbed at the subject of this meeting, and particularly at the subject I have chosen. Such people are thinking something like this: “How is it that an organization like this, a group of radicals trying to bring new things into the world, a fighting organization which has come up out of the blood and dust of battle, struggling for the right of black men to be ordinary human beings — how is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about Art? After all, what have we who are slaves and black to do with Art? Or perhaps there are others who feel a certain relief and are saying, ‘After all it is rather satisfactory after all this talk about rights and fighting to sit and dream of something which leaves a nice taste in the mouth.’”

What Du Bois asserted is that there can be no revolution without the arts. During the time, in which he wrote this seminal essay, artists during that period were vibrant and creating, multiple expressions of self across disciplines. The Harlem Renaissance was full of writers, artists, playwrights, actors, painters, dancers and musicians. What Du Bois was pushing for, particularly in his theory of the Talented Tenth, was the leadership of the artist activist. It’s here where Paul Robeson and his contemporaries , and mentees, embraced this concept of the artist and activist and utilized it to push the agenda of liberation of oppressed people around the globe.

Du Bois’ influence is clear: Paul Robeson once said “Every artist, every scientist, must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. Through the destruction, in certain countries, of the greatest of man’s literary heritage, through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The struggle invades the formerly cloistered halls of our universities and other seats of learning. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear.”

The role of the artist-activist cannot be dismissed nor understated. Influenced by the work of DuBois, Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham and others, for more than a decade, I have committed my own life to exploring the African Diaspora and disseminating this knowledge through a variety of ways, namely cultural programs, contemporary art exhibitions and research projects. I have served communities of African descendants locally, nationally and abroad. I believe that art is a powerful weapon in the face of oppression, discrimination and injustice. Nigerian musician-activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, in his fight against corruption in Nigeria pronounced “Music is the Weapon.” There are many other examples throughout history that exemplify the power of images, words, sounds and artistic productions in liberating Black people and people of African descent.

At the heart of each revolutionary movement of African peoples are the arts, whether that expression is through song (anti-apartheid songs sung by young students in Soweto), literature (the various publications produced during the Negritude movement) to the visual (the global resistance as expressed by the graffiti of urban youth today). Through my work as a curator and cultural worker, I have utilized the capacity of art to create social change in the world. My idea is simple: culture brings people together and has the ability to educate, inspire, provoke and unify individuals in our communities regardless of socio-economic status, education level or political consciousness.

In closing, for the artist, creator, cultural worker of African descent, all art is propaganda. Despite the objective, universal, belief of western aesthetics, there is no such thing as art for art’s sake within the framework of African aesthetics.

To return to the words of Du Bois’s Criteria of Negro Art, he eloquently states “Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”
As we prepare for the forthcoming International Decade of People of African Descent, as activists, as policy makers, as artists and cultural workers, we must educate, we must agitate and continue to use our talents to fight for the liberation of our people.

Thank you.



Selfie with South African Ambassador H.E. Abdul Minty, my co-panelist during today’d commemoriation event for the fearless African-American artist-activist, Paul Robeson. 

Commemorating the contribution of Afro-descendent leaders to Human Rights
Theme: Remembering African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson
Organized by World Against Racism Network (WARN)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014
13.00 to 15.00
Room XXII, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France, Chair of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
H.E. Abdul Minty, Permanent Representative of South Africa to the U.N.
Krishna Ahoojapatel, World Against Racism Network
Shantrelle Lewis, Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement
Moderator: Jan Lönn, World Against Racism Network


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