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Dialogue of Cultures

Afrika Hayes:
Growing Up With
Roland Hayes

Fisk University Library
Roland Hayes.
EIRNS/Stuart Lewis
Afrika Hayes Singing at the February 18-20, 1994 Schiller Institute Conference.

Fidelio, Vol.III,No,2. 
Summer 1994

This article is reprinted from the Summer 1994 issue of FIDELIO Magazine.

For related articles, scroll down or click here.

Afrika Hayes Interview

Growing Up with Roland Hayes

Afrika Hayes, soprano, is the daughter of the great tenor Roland Hayes, who pioneered the way for African-American musicians onto the Classical music stage in the United States and Europe at the beginning of this century. Roland Hayes, the son of a slave with only a sixth-grade education, opened the doors for Marian Anderson, who sang with him as a child in her church in Philadelphia, and for countless other African-American artists, who benefitted from his marvelous talent and courage.

In addition to her singing career, Afrika Hayes teaches music in the public school system in Boston and is assisting in the preparation of a biography of her father for publication in the near future. She performed at the Feb. 18-20, 1994 conference of the Schiller Institute. This interview was conducted by Lynne and Dennis Speed on Feb. 22, 1994.

Fidelio: Let me ask you about your growing up with such a great teacher as your father, and how some of those early experiences affected you and your own decision to go into music, both as an educator as well as a singer.

Hayes: I suppose it all goes back to the time I was about two years old, the first time that I ever met Marian Anderson. She tucked me in bed; she was our house guest. I remember what a very lovely person she was.

Not only was there music around the house from various people who came to visit us, but we had statesmen that would come, and they and my parents would talk and I was somewhere there listening and taking it all in, and wisely saying nothing.

As far as my musical training, I started my piano lessons at the age of three. I was composing at the age of two. Of course, I studied piano and I'm still playing the piano, for that matter. I was fortunate enough to do some accompanying for my father, at home, not on the stage. Daddy was a very exacting person, and in my piano practice, to this day, there is one section of the Chopin waltz in C♯-minor I still can't play, because there was a particular incident where my fingers stumbled and my father leaned over the bannister and said, “Blue notes! Blue notes!” To this day, I cannot play that piece without stumbling on the blue notes.

I didn't seriously consider singing as a profession until I was about thirty. I had always been afraid to sing for my father, because my father was a perfectionist and the two of us were too much alike. We tried once, when I was sixteen, to take a voice lesson. He'd scream and holler and I'd scream and holler. So we decided that this was not the time to do it. So I just blithely went on with my piano and left the voice alone.

My father was not an advocate of choral singing, if you wanted to be a soloist. He and I had many heated battles about singing in the chorus, because I love choral singing. I always have loved choral singing. In high school, I was very upset because he would not allow me to join the a cappella chorus. My senior year I did it anyway. There was wisdom in that, as I'm bitterly learning now in my advanced years.

It was my husband who started me really singing. I was listening to the Met one Saturday afternoon, doing my rare house-cleaning. I didn't notice my husband standing in the door. I looked up and he said, “Who the hell said you couldn't sing?” I said, “I can?” He said, “Of course you can!” I said, “Oh!” So I picked up the phone and called my father and said, “Daddy, I think I should come home, there's something I want you to hear.”

I had a program already prepared, because I had been doing some coaching with Rosa Ponselle. I went home and I sang this program for Daddy. And Daddy liked it. I almost dropped dead from shock. I began to go up every weekend for a coaching session, and then he said, “How would you like to do a joint concert with me?”

Fidelio: So at that point you were getting coaching from your father?

Hayes: Yes. At my ripe old age of thirty. We gave three joint concerts. I was utterly shocked, but I think maybe I'd grown up, too. I was able to accept what he had to offer, and he in his turn was able to finally get through to me. I enjoyed it very much, but still there was part of me, that wasn't me. Because, this much of me was still trying to please Daddy. This much of me hadn't found myself yet.

It wasn't actually until my father died that I was able to be completely free. I understood then what he was trying to teach me all along. I think I knew all the time, but I had to be able to feel it for myself without someone telling me. I also did not have that stigma, “Oh, this was very well dear, but ... .” I couldn't stand the “buts.”

So there began my concert career. I never would become great—I was good, but I wasn't great, because I had too many other things that interested me more. I think that's fortunate. Because so many times, an entertainer puts all of his eggs in one basket, and there does come a time where she can't do it any more. Unless she has something to fall back on, what is she going to do?

Fortunately, I am able to teach. I can still act if I have to. (I enjoy acting. My husband and I appeared on the college stage in many plays. I played Amelia to his Iago; I played Antigone and he was Creon; and so on.) I play the piano. And consequently, I know what I am trying to extend to children, who don't always understand what I want, but eventually they come through with it.

Fidelio: Can you say a little more about acting and Classical music and drama? Did you have an opportunity growing up to see many Shakespeare plays and Greek dramas? Because that's very rare today.

Hayes: I had seen them, and also I got involved with the drama department when I attended college in upstate New York. We had an excellent teacher, who was steeped in Greek mythology and knew the Greek plays. So I just took those classes and had a wonderful time. But, if you're a singer, you're an actor or actress anyway. Because you're not Afrika Hayes or Robert McFerrin; you're Amanasro, or Rigoletto, or Gilda. So you have to act; you can't be a stick standing up on the stage saying, “One, two, three, da da.” That's not going to move your audience, because there's no motivation.

Fidelio: Everyone who has ever had an opportunity to hear your father or hear recordings of your father remarks that this voice is absolutely incredible: the longevity of the voice, the fact that he was still singing so beautifully well into his eighties. This is also now becoming a rarity in the Classical music world and the operatic tradition. Many people blow out their voices through bad training, bad technique, bad methods. Can you describe his training and how he developed the methods that he used to enable him to both sing so beautifully and to sing so beautifully with the voice preserved over the years?

Hayes: I think Daddy would possibly call that self-preservation. People asked him several times, what method do you use. My father said, “I don't have a method.”

If you listen to the recordings, it wasn't the voice itself, it was what he did with the voice. Artistry, to me, is more important than the most glorious voice in the world. You could have a voice like a golden bell, with nothing behind it. If I were being a very critical person, I could pick out vocal flaws that my Dad had, but you forget about that. You may not see him, but you hear the artistry, you can picture what is going on in his mind.

As far as artistry is concerned, my father was an advocate of reading. I remember being read to by both of my parents: poems, stories. This is the problem with the children today. They're not read to. So they don't grow up understanding anything except the Simpsons on TV. Or that Beevis and Butthead and that purple thing, Barney. That's not going to help a child understand what's going on in the world or what is Classic, what is not Classic, what is in good taste. Children nowadays really don't know good taste, what good taste is.

Fidelio: I have also heard that your father was very inspired by his mother, who, I understand, was born a slave on a plantation. Can you say something about that?

Hayes: I was never fortunate to have met my grandmother, because she was dead when I was born. But, from what I understand, my grandmother was a very strict, very religious person, who did not believe that my father should pursue a concert career, because she thought that the field of entertainment, if you want to call it that, was only for lightweight people.

She had wanted my father to become a minister, of all things. But once he set his mind to what he was going to do, there was no turning back. He always had his mother's admonition in his ear: “Remember who you are.” I think this is one of the reasons that he was able to not separate himself from his roots.

Before he became really famous, one of the things that my grandmother instilled in him was his impeccable diction. He was practicing something in the next room and my grandmother said, “What's that?” He said, “I was singing, Mother.” “Singing what? Don't tell me what you're singing, I want to understand what you're singing. Don't tell me what it was you were singing.” That is what made him so careful of his diction. My father used to tell me, “You can't sing with a mouth full of tone. You've got to have some words.”

Fidelio: Could you tell us about the incident in 1927, when your father sang in Germany?

Hayes: He was to give a concert in Berlin. But before he arrived in Berlin, a newspaper had been spread all over the city asking, how can this Black man from the cotton fields of Georgia be expected to sing our wonderful lieder? He will do nothing but desecrate them; he'll make a mockery of them, etc.

When he appeared on the concert stage, he was greeted with boos and hisses. He told me that he had never been so frightened in all his life, as at that moment. He just stood there. And while he was standing there, he signaled his accompanist to change the order of the program. And he began to sing “Du bist die Ruh,” which was one of the favorite lieder of the German people at that time. He sang it so beautifully, they stopped hissing and started listening.

Now, the greatest sign of approval at that time was the pounding of walking sticks, which all the gentlemen carried, on the floor. So halfway through the song, the pounding of the sticks started. There was so much noise, that by the time he reached the last note, it couldn't even be heard, because the audience was up on their feet already. And after that, he quietly continued with the rest of the program.

Fidelio: Even during the period when he was being received by heads of state, the royalty in Europe, and so on, it's my understanding that he always took time to go around also to the community, to the Black churches. There's the story of his having Marian Anderson on his program when she was a little girl, which was a great honor to her, as she describes it in her autobiography. He took time out to go to the people who perhaps couldn't afford to go to the big concert halls.

Hayes: My father never forgot where he came from. So many of us, unfortunately, when we have reached the top, forget about those that helped get us there.

He taught me a very valuable lesson when I was a little girl. He was giving a concert at Symphony Hall, and after the concert, I hopped back to where my father was greeting guests. A little girl had come with her mother, and my father greeted her and then the mother introduced her to me. So I looked down my short nose at her and I said, “Oh, how do you do.” My father turned around and he said: “Don't you ever let me hear you talk like that to anyone again. These people, old, young, Black, white, whatever, are all equal. They have come to hear me perform. They are entitled to the same courtesy. And I never want to hear you talk like that again.” I never forgot it. That's a lesson in humility and courtesy.

Fidelio: As a teacher, what do you think of the state of present music education?

Hayes: It's sad. I think so many schools now do not teach values in anything, whether it's music, English—maybe math and science, because everybody seems to like math and science. In many music classes, the teachers teach the children music to entertain them. The repertoire is nothing but a bunch of garbage. That is the general program in all the schools: white schools, Black schools.

I do things differently. I sneak in things, and they don't realize that they're learning something Classical. They don't realize that they might be singing something by Bach, until I tell them later. It's the duty of the teacher to expose the children. They may not like it, but they have to take the medicine. They don't realize that they have to learn this, in order to grow. As I said to some students who were complaining, “I'm not here to entertain you—I'm here to educate you.”

Fidelio: What do you think has to be done to give children the kind of exposure to the Classical music tradition that your father had?

Hayes: Read, read, read, read. That's the first thing. Get our children to read. Get our children to love the spoken word. Get our children to be able to transport that spoken word maybe into a singing word. The reason I think children don't like, or say they don't like, Classical music, is because they don't understand it. And how can you understand it unless you learn to read, in order to understand?

Fidelio: Your father had only a sixth-grade education, but he sang in Italian, French, and German. Hopw did he do that? How many languages did he know?

Hayes: French, German, Italian. He could sing in Russian, but I don't think he understood it. When he went to Europe, he studied the languages. You could do anything you wanted, if you studied.

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