"Women's voices are refusing to be silenced"

Barbara Hendricks.
Barbara Hendricks. / MATS BÄCKER
  • Barbara Hendricks' voice, which filled the Nerja Cave last Saturday, comes with a message in defence of human rights. In an interview with SUR, she insists: "Music does not replace real citizen activism"

Barbara Hendricks uses her powerful voice to perform opera, gospel or blues but she also raises it to cry out against injustice, to warn against populism and to urge on the feminist movement. The US-born soprano with Swedish citizenship is an activist by word and deed, as Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. In fact is was her voice and her commitment that won her the Prince of Asturias Prize in 2000. For Hendricks (Arkansas, 1948), music and the defence of human rights are one and the same. To open this year's International Music and Dance Festival, she broke the daunting silence of the Nerja Cave with The Road to Freedom, a programme of gospel songs, blues and spirituals which inspired the fight against slavery and racial segregation in the United States.

The Road to Freedom looks back at the fight for human rights led by Martin Luther King. 50 years later, is the fight still going on?

Absolutely. It's going on, it's going on everywhere and it's more important today than it has been in my lifetime. Today we are facing on a global level the fight for justice for solidarity - the same fight Martin Luther King was leading.

After the recent cases of police brutality in the States, might it be fair to say that we're going backwards on this issue?

No, I don't think so. The news emphasises everything that is wrong, but I think that on a global level we're advancing as a human race. There are more people who are aware of human rights - just look at the situation of women. It's very, very bad in many countries but it is moving slowly in the right direction. If we stand back and look at some of the things that don't become newsworthy, we see people showing love and solidarity all over the place, but they don't make the news. With the American presidency now we have someone who hogs the 24-hour news cycle with his antics and who is also a great inspiration for the forces of hatred and separation and isolation and so he sucks all of the air out of the planet, not just out of the room. So everyone is focused on that kind of news and I do think we are constantly moving forward. But the fight is not over until the last breath has been breathed.

What can music do in the middle of all this?

During the civil rights movement music played an important role, just by inspiring people and giving them courage. They would meet in the church and they would start marching and singing and when they were being beaten they continued to sing. Music was a force that made the blows less painful. Music can remind us that we all belong to the same family which is called humanity. It goes past our heads and into our hearts and makes us vibrate together and just for a little while we realise that somehow we're more alike than we're different. Art has that power because it is the expression of our human condition and when we recognise that we share a human condition we become better people. If music could stop wars and change the world all we'd have to do is go to a big concert and everything would be fine, but it is a part of the struggle - it does not replace real citizen activism.

You once said that being an activist is every citizen's obligation. Do you think people need to be more demanding with their politicians?

Of course, because the reason they become lazy and unresponsive to their duties is because we are not demanding. We've been very lucky; I'm old enough to be a part of that blessed generation after the Second World War when we lived in a time of growth. When I graduated from university my friends could just look in the paper and pick and choose the jobs. It was a positive time, with the civil rights movement, the continuation of the women's movement, there was hope. But just before 9/11 the world took a change and I see young people in their 20s today still have enthusiasm but the world is not the easy place it seemed to us.

Hendricks singing inside Nerja Cave.

Hendricks singing inside Nerja Cave.

Democracy is no stronger than we are, and because we are not perfect democracy is not perfect, but we have to continue to make it work if it's going to survive. And we just can't say, 'OK, now we've arrived' and sit back; that's when things start to go wrong. We have to stay awake and be willing to take a stand. We're not pushing our politicians to do what we've elected them to do so they get lazy and comfortable, but it is our job to remind them that they work for the citizens.

Populism and far-right groups are getting stronger in Europe. Italy is the latest example. Does that worry you?

It worries me but in my opinion Italy has been chaotic since the Second World War, their political system has always been full of corruption. I stay positive because I'm a mother and a grandmother and I want the world to be a better place for my children. The food of populism is fear, it would not survive without fear. And the media has a part to play because fear also sells papers, it sells television shows. And so the populists have built-in help as it's so easy to make people feel fearful, and that fear becomes hatred and rejection.

You've lived in Europe since 1976. How do you see Donald Trump's government from a distance?

Now fortunately, or unfortunately, it's as if you were there, with the internet, so much so that I have to put it off because no-one should know what Donald Trump does every day. I'm a Swedish citizen and I think the EU is a wonderful adventure that I wanted to be part of. It is the only union of nations that has ever been developed and founded based on the principles of human rights and peace and I find that so extraordinary.

What do you think about Spain taking in the migrants refused by Italy?

Well isn't it funny - just a bit more than a week earlier Spain had a different government that probably would not have done that. My mother always said, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Italy says no and Spain comes and fills the gap. As I said, a week earlier we wouldn't have been able to imagine that there would be another government in Spain and that would be composed mostly of women - it's extraordinary.

Women are saying enough is enough in all sectors with the #MeToo movement. Have you found yourself in an uncomfortable situation for being a woman?

Not as a soprano, no. I've always sought out personal relationships based on mutual human respect and if that was not there then that relationship ceased. Women's rights begin at home like any other human right. I've been greatly inspired by this women's movement and I think that it is going to be at the forefront of the resistance against the populism that is happening right now. I think women are going to be playing the most important roles. Women's voices are refusing to be silenced. This movement goes across from left to right. Women on the left and women on the right in politics have been exposed to the exact same obstacles. It is something that is very uniting. Women with different ideas are able to talk and acknowledge our differences and be able to find solutions.

For many opera is still an elitist art. How can we change that idea?

By making it accessible. Making it possible for kids to realise that opera started out as a very popular music form. It was the pop music of the time. It's now put in museums but it's a living art form. For a child not to know who Mozart is is poverty of education.