Volume 9 Number 5
Singing for Harmony

01 October 1996

I was the white sheep of the family
Close your eyes and it might be Paul Robeson singing; open them and you see an African-American of the same massive build as the legendary singer. Indeed Joe Carter portrayed Robeson in a musical which ran for two years in San Francisco.

Carter feels a responsibility to take to the world in song and story the pain and struggle of his people. He draws on his family background: his great-grandparents were slaves and his great-aunt was the educator Mary Macleod Bethune. He brings to the task what the San Francisco Examiner calls 'a magnificent bass-baritone voice', a personal magnetism which according to the Las Vegas Sun 'held a crowd of 20,000 spellbound', and an infectious sense of humour. 'I was the white sheep of the family,' he likes to say.

Having grown up in a liberal community where whites were fighting for civil rights Carter was out of his teens before he realized how much he and his people were affected by race. He has since known racial discrimination and police harassment. But to him forgiveness is a choice which liberates him and sets in motion the possibility of change in the other person. 'If I have hate for another human being,' he says, 'I am not free.'

On one occasion the 6ft 4in singer was accosted by a white man half his size on a Las Vegas street. The man, as Carter puts it, used the N word. Carter's immediate thought was, 'This man has a problem. He also must be a masochist to pick on the biggest black man around.' Carter smiled and said, 'Good morning, you look a bit under the weather this morning. I hope you'll feel better as the day goes by.' As he looked back he saw the man scratching his head, bewildered, embarrassed and disarmed. To Carter it was a demonstration of his belief that 'there can be a right response to a wrong action'.

To the delight of his musical family, he won admission to the New England Conservatory of Music. They were dismayed, however, when he gave up the opportunity in order to devote himself to missionary work. A series of spiritual experiences sent him to Haiti. There he spent six happy years, though he had to contend with danger and intrigue, with voodoo and the gangs of Doc Duvalier, even enduring a mock execution. He ended up founding six schools, feeding a thousand people a day, and building small businesses to fund the operations.

After returning to the US he established a reputation as a speaker, often describing to religious communities his missionary experiences, and for three years he had his own cable TV show in Boston. However, the chance to star in a musical about Paul Robeson set him on a new course, bringing together the spiritual, artistic and social strands of his life. In theatre he saw 'the chance to reach out to ordinary people in a non-religious setting'.

In 1988 he began a relationship with the Russian city of Novosibirsk, a sister city of his own Minneapolis. At a concert attended by the then Communist leadership he quoted Robeson: 'The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery,' and added, 'There is something more powerful than nuclear weapons. It is the power of love and forgiveness.'

He has performed in 60 cities around the world and this summer drew an enthusiastic ovation at Caux and invitations to Australia, India and other countries.

Carter has set up a Center of Intercultural Harmony with the aim of using music and theatre 'to transcend culture and ethnicity and to communicate a spirit of harmony'. He is at home with international audiences and on big stages but he also likes to go into rural white communities and 'gently educate them'.

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