TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Cynthia Erivo, is a great singer and actress. In 2016, after coming to the U.S. from England, she won a Tony and Drama Desk Award for her starring role in the Broadway revival of the musical "The Color Purple." For her starring role as Harriet Tubman in the film "Harriet," she was nominated for an Oscar and was also nominated for the closing credits song "Stand Up," which she co-wrote and sang. The song won an award from the Society of Composers and Lyricists.
Erivo played Aretha Franklin in this year's TV miniseries "Genius: Aretha," which you can still watch on Hulu. She didn't get to sing in the HBO series "The Outsider," adapted from a Stephen King novel, but she was great in that, too. Now she sings in the character of herself on her debut album, "Ch. 1 Vs. 1," featuring songs she co-wrote. This song from the album is called "Hero."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERO")
CYNTHIA ERIVO: (Singing) Living in a time where the brave feel helpless and the strong, strong are weak. They don't see, they don't see a way out of the darkness. So they fall, fall to their knees. See; I want to be a hero. I want to be a hero. I want to save somebody, make them free, take the bars from off the prison cage. Mother stands alone.
GROSS: That's Cynthia Erivo from her new album. She's also written a new children's book called "Remember To Dream, Ebere." Erivo grew up in South London, where her parents emigrated from Nigeria. I wanted to know what it was like to play Aretha and to try to sing like her. Before we hear what she had to say, let's hear Erivo sing in a scene from the miniseries "Genius: Aretha." This is set during her first recording session for Atlantic Records in 1967. Aretha is at the piano singing "I Never Loved A Man."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's it. That's it.
ERIVO: (As Aretha Franklin, singing) You're a no-good heartbreaker. You're a liar, and you're a cheat. I don't know why I let you do these things to me. My friends keep telling me that you ain't no good. Oh, they don't know that I would leave you if I could. Guess I'm uptight, that I'm stuck like glue 'cause I ain't never, I ain't never, I ain't never - no, no - loved a man the way that I - I love you.
GROSS: That's Cynthia Erivo from the miniseries "Genius: Aretha." Cynthia Erivo, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ERIVO: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: It is such a pleasure to have you on the show. How did you start listening to Aretha Franklin?
ERIVO: When I was a kid and we - so there's this radio station in the U.K. called Magic FM. And it plays everything - everything from, let's say - I don't know if you know a band called Mike and the Mechanics to The Eurythmics to Kate Bush to Aretha to Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Lauryn Hill, the whole lot. And so when we were - be on the way to school, my mom would always have that radio station on. And the first time I heard it, it was from there.
I think - I want to say the first thing I heard was "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves." And then I heard - I think it was "Till You Come Back To Me." So I had heard Aretha in, like, two different ways - one with Annie Lennox and then one on her own - from two different times. And I just sort of fell in love. I didn't really know - 'cause I didn't know who that was - and then I started asking questions. And my mom told me it was Aretha Franklin. And so I was aware of how much I loved music and that I wanted to be a singer. And I just sort of fell in love with her voice. The fact that she could do that with Annie Lennox and then that on her own just was astounding to me.
GROSS: Did you try to emulate her?
ERIVO: I don't think I tried to emulate her. I just wanted to listen to everything she had. And I started learning her music pretty, pretty early. Yeah.
GROSS: Did you listen to her differently when you were playing her than you did just as, like, a listener?
ERIVO: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: What was the difference?
ERIVO: When you listen to her as a whole, you sort of hear everything at once. So it's like a full picture. It's like looking at a picture from afar. When you're listening to a piece of music by anyone and you want to hear the whole - so if you listening to Aretha as a whole - when I was just a listener, I was looking at it like I was looking at a painting by Seurat. And you look at - and you're standing far away from it. And you can see everything. It just looks like a beautiful painting. It's beautiful. You don't see any of the detail. But you see the picture. And you see the broad strokes. And you see how it's come together. You don't see all the work that's gone into - to make it happen.
But when you're learning something and you have to learn it for all the detail, you're looking at the picture as close as you can get to it. So now you can see all the paint spots, everything that - all the details that have gone in to make just the umbrella or just the - I don't know - the sunshine or just the sky or - you're looking at each specific part of the painting on its own before you can recreate the entire picture.
GROSS: I know you've said that when you were listening to Aretha before playing her that one of the things you were listening for is, where did she breathe?
ERIVO: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Why was that important?
ERIVO: Because the breath, I think, tells you everything about what the person is trying to say. You know, when you - if you look at a sentence, where the comma goes tells you what the sentence means. If I say, today I've been feeling really, really bad, but - and then I say, today I've been feeling really bad, but it'll be all right, well, now I've - it's - one is, I feel ill, and one is, emotionally, I feel bad. You see? And so when - she would breathe in different places, and it would change the sentence structure. It would change the meaning of the song. Another person might sing it a completely different way.
GROSS: Can you sing us an example of what you mean?
ERIVO: I use this song often to explain it because it's - one, it's a beautiful song. And two, I had to really, really dig in and learn it. And three, it just is a wonderful example of how the breathwork changes. It's called "Never Grow Old." I had to learn it for the "Amazing Grace" episode. And it goes like this. The sentence is, I have heard of a land on a faraway strand. That's the sentence. The normal way to sing it is (singing) I have heard of a land on a faraway strand.
Right? She sings, (singing) I have heard of a land on a far, faraway strand.
GROSS: You get the impression that it's more far away (laughter).
GROSS: ...The way you sang it.
GROSS: Yeah. But it - I'll tell you, it was beautiful both ways.
ERIVO: She just has this way with music. The way she manipulates it and uses it to tell the story is really special. And it's that sort of making you wait for the explanation 'cause when - it's a difference between moving from one note to the other really quickly - I have heard, as opposed to, I have heard of a land, you know?
GROSS: You met her twice backstage at "The Color Purple" and at the Kennedy Center. Did you feel like you were able to have a meaningful conversation with her? I think sometimes, like, when you meet somebody who's so important to you, you just don't know what to say.
ERIVO: I think that was - I was that. I didn't really know what to say, but I was also sort of disarmed by how funny she was. She was so, like, jovial. She joked. When I first met her, she sang the last sentence of my big song back at me. And so I almost fell over 'cause Aretha Franklin is singing, and I'm here, back at me (laughter). And I just - I didn't know what to do. I think I just laughed. I was just like, oh, my God. Hi.
GROSS: Did she sing it like you? Or did she sing it like her?
ERIVO: I think she sang it like her singing it like me.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
ERIVO: You know what I mean? So she had memorized how I had sung it - like the phrasing - and sang that sentence. But she sounds like her. And I just - I remember thinking, I'm never going to forget this because it meant that she remembered it and that it stuck with her. And I remember her saying you - well, you can sing. You can sing. I was like, OK. Oh, my God. This is nuts. It just, you know - I don't know if I needed anything more meaningful than that, to be honest, 'cause if the queen of soul can remember you as the person who can sing, well, wonderful.
GROSS: She was brought up in the church, and she was brought up singing gospel in the church on tours through the South and in her father's church. And so when she started singing R&B, it was so church-influenced. And I'm wondering about if you grew up churched at all in England and, if so, what the music was.
ERIVO: We did - I did grow up in church but different 'cause I'm - Roman Catholic is what I was raised on. And then - but I was a bit of a rebel. So when I was in church, it was a lot of, like, Christian hymns. And I wanted more because I was sort of - I was listening to gospel music, and I was learning about gospel singers, and I was learning about that sound. And I wanted to hear it in my own church.
So one of the churches when I - we moved to East London from South London, and that church had a choir. So I remember they asked if I could join the choir, and so I did. And then somehow, I managed to end up being, like, one of the conductors of the choir. And I would just, like, sneak gospel songs in from time to time and just have them, like, sing a couple of gospel songs. Consequently, I got into trouble for it. And they were like, you can't sing those songs in here anymore. And I never understood why because I felt like all music that was for the same reason was equal and was meaningful.
GROSS: Was the objection to the gospel music the lyrics of the song or the style of singing?
ERIVO: I think it's the style of singing. I think the style of singing was the - was where the objection came. There's a particularly straight-laced way of praising that's correct for the Catholic Church. There's a specific way that you should do it, and there's a specific thing that you can sing. There are specific songs. And anything outside of the lines is too far.
GROSS: Was this a predominantly white congregation?
ERIVO: Very much so. Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cynthia Erivo. She has a new album called "Ch. 1 Vs. 1" and a new children's book called "Remember To Dream, Ebere." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS (FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cynthia Erivo. She starred in the Broadway revival of "The Color Purple," played Harriet Tubman in the film "Harriet," played Aretha Franklin in the TV miniseries "Genius: Aretha" - which is streaming on Hulu - and was one of the stars of the HBO series "The Outsider." She has a new album called "Ch. 1 Vs. 1" and a new children's book called "Remember To Dream, Ebere."
Your mother who raised you came from Nigeria. What were her dreams?
ERIVO: She surpassed a lot of her dreams. Her dream was to be a nurse. So she got that, and then had to change it. I watched her sort of go, OK, I got my nursing degree. Now, what else do I want? I think she definitely wanted to be in the U.K. with her - with children. I know she wanted children. I think she wanted more children than she has, but she's very happy with the two that she does. And I think that she sort of learned after the dream of being a nurse came true that she had this sort of passion for taking care of children full stop. And so she focused her studies on the cognitive health of children and ended up becoming - there's a position in the U.K. called health visitor.
And her job specifically is to help new mothers with children from the age of, say, one month almost to the age of 3 just with, like, learning, cognitive skills and making sure that the mother isn't suffering from postpartum - and if they are, then she can help. And she makes sure that the children are latching in the right way, or if there's anything going on or there's colic or all of those things. All the things that you would - you might panic about if you don't have any guidance, my mother is there to help you with. That's what her job used to be. And she sort of flew with it. She kind of rose to the top of the ranks on that one. Yeah.
GROSS: Was it reassuring to you to have a mother who knew what to do if something went wrong?
ERIVO: Oh, my gosh, yeah. Yeah. She's cool. It's really fun.
ERIVO: I realize that she's, like, the child whisperer. It's really fun watching her with other people's children because they don't really know how it's done. And I don't know how it's done. I feel like I've been - it feels like it's, like, in our genes because I end up being the same with kids. And I don't really need to do very much. And kids sort of are like, oh, what's this interesting-looking being sitting next to me? I want to know who that person is. And we're off to the races. It's hilarious. I think she passed it on.
GROSS: Your parents separated, I think, when you were pretty young. And by the time you were 16, your father told you and your sister that he was done.
ERIVO: Well, yeah, he told me. He told...
GROSS: Oh, it was just you?
ERIVO: ...Just me. He told me that he was out of our lives. And I sort of had to relay the message to everyone. Yeah.
GROSS: What was your reaction? Could you see that coming?
ERIVO: I didn't see it coming. Although, I - in hindsight, I probably should have seen it coming. But I didn't see it coming because, you know, what 16-year-old would? At the time, I was heartbroken because it was in public when it happened as well. So it was just, like, not fun. But, yeah, it was deeply disappointing, deeply heartbreaking. And I think I felt bad for having to have to bring that information back to my house, to my mom and my sister. And I remember it was in the middle of a school day, so I still had to go through school. That was not fun.
GROSS: Did he give you an explanation?
ERIVO: No. Not really. No. No. I think he just had - I think he was finished being a dad.
GROSS: And did you think that there was something about you that made him leave? Or did you think, like, he's being mean and thoughtless in doing this and that's on him, not on me?
ERIVO: I don't know. I don't know if I was thinking about that. I never really compartmentalized it. I just saw someone doing something that hurt me. And I think it was just sort of as simple as that, like, someone is - he was doing something that he knew would hurt me to be mean and spiteful. But I knew that he was going to stick to it. I knew that it wasn't, like, a jab that he would take back at some point.
GROSS: Have you spoken to him since?
ERIVO: Actually - tell a lie. I bumped into him randomly at a cousin's wedding. We had an awkward sort of hello. And that was - that's it - when I was 25.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cynthia Erivo. And she has a new album called "Ch. 1 Vs. 1" and a new children's book called "Remember To Dream, Ebere." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOWING UP")
ERIVO: (Singing) Staring to see a picture of me, but it's too hard to look in my eyes. I know I'm ashamed I might find what I left behind, what I worked for so long to hide. But in the end, I know what's incredible is the chance to change myself, because diamonds don't shine until they've been buried alive. But I've been in the rough for long enough. Tonight, I'm glowing up. And diamonds can't sparkle until they find light they can follow.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "GIMME ALL YOUR LOVE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Cynthia Erivo. She won a Tony for her starring role in the Broadway revival of "The Color Purple." She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Harriet Tubman in the film "Harriet" and was also nominated for the closing song "Stand Up," which she co-wrote and sang. She was one of the stars of the HBO adaptation of the Stephen King novel "The Outsider." She just released her debut album, "Ch. 1 Vs. 1," and she's written a new children's book called "Remember To Dream, Ebere." Oh, and I didn't mention that she played Aretha Franklin in the TV miniseries "Genius: Aretha," which is streaming on Hulu.
You went to RADA, which is the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in England - very famous school. You didn't know it existed when you were invited to apply for it.
ERIVO: (Laughter) I did not. I did not.
GROSS: Was it revelatory once you got there to study acting in such a formal and probably traditional way?
ERIVO: Yeah. I just - because I didn't know that that was even a possibility when I was going through primary school or secondary school. No one was like, well, we can go to drama school. No one gave me that option. So the whole thing was revelatory. Like, the first year was both discovery and struggle and a half 'cause I was just like, what am I doing here? And I - there's so many things I don't really understand. What was my strong suit was that I was a little bit different to most people, that I was one of the kids that was good at singing. And we had a particularly musical year, so there were a couple of other kids who could sing, too. And actually being able to sing was really useful. And when I started to embrace that, I sort of could see where the opportunities were. Some people were really wonderful at the classics and at Jacobeans (ph). And, you know, those kids that came from Eton who had read those things were brilliant at those things. But I wasn't that. My raw talent came from understanding music.
So when we started talking about Sondheim and learning those songs, for me, I was in heaven. And when we started reading "Seven Guitars" by August Wilson, I recognized myself in those people because, while it was a Black writer writing about Black people and I could see myself in them, those are plays I had read, and there's a playwright I had heard of. And when you are passionate about acting, Shakespeare was where we all sort of, like, joined hands because, well, we all knew Shakespeare. But now I could have a sort of - a real grasp on the scope with which he wrote.
GROSS: You know, when you were talking about Aretha, you talked about the importance of where you breathe and how it can even change the meaning of a phrase. So when you were learning Sondheim songs - I think breath is really - especially important in those songs in terms of the meaning but, in some of the songs, just in terms of having an opportunity to breathe (laughter) 'cause some of the songs, there isn't a lot of opportunity. And those songs are really rangy, you know? So your breath support would be really important. Is there a song you especially loved when you started singing Sondheim?
ERIVO: I loved "Being Alive." And I loved "The Miller's Son." Have you ever heard "The Miller's Son"?
GROSS: I have. I've seen you sing it on YouTube. So if anybody wants to see it, it's there.
ERIVO: Yeah, that's one of my favorite songs. I just - that is one of those songs where you're like, if you don't breathe in the right place, you won't make it to the end of the sentence.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of what you mean?
ERIVO: Oh, my God. I don't even know if I can remember the lyrics. I haven't done it for such a long time. Is it - (singing) it's a wink and a wiggle and a giggle in the grass. And I'll trip the light fandango. A pinch and a piddle - a pinch and a diddle in the middle of what passes by. It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension. It's a very short road to the ten thousandth lunch and the paunch and the pouch and the sigh. In the meanwhile, there are mouths to be kissed before mouths to be fed and a lot in between in the meanwhile. And a girl has to celebrate what passes by. Oh, I shall marry the miller's son.
GROSS: Yeah, thank you. Did you - how did you figure out where to breathe? Did you get advice on that? Did it seem natural?
ERIVO: I got advice. I had a really lovely teacher at RADA. It was Philip (ph). He was just - he was wonderful, actually. I will say that. My singing teacher at RADA - we're all sort of assigned a singing teacher, most of us because we've never sung before, so we can learn about what that is and learn how to connect the singing voice and the singing breath with the speaking voice and the speaking breath. So we don't differentiate the two so far apart that we're afraid of one of them because they're sort of one and the same. And I think that because I was already in tune with my singing voice, what Philip did with me was encourage me to try new things, try more. So he would have me singing arias from "Otello."
GROSS: And were you comfortable singing in an operatic style? Or did it not matter which style you sang in as long as you did the singing?
ERIVO: I was comfortable. Classical music was sort of a love of mine, and then when I went to drama school, my voice was already sort of ready to try that. And it's the same - whilst I was doing "The Color Purple," my singing teacher June (ph) - Joan Lader, rather - was wonderful. She would give me classical music or opera to sing 'cause she said that the best way to allow my voice to be open enough to sing what I was singing on stage was to just try something that was totally opposite to it. So you weren't taxing your voice the same way the entire time. You were just sort of opening it up and exercising it but not stressing it.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of how you learned to open up your voice?
ERIVO: I'll do one of the first things I did at secondary school, actually, because we'd always do sort of, like, the end-of-year, like, choral show. And this one year, we decided to do "Rutter Requiem," the "Rutter Requiem" by John Rutter. And I was asked to sing "Pie" - there's a version of "Pie Jesu" for the John Rutter requiem. And it's very special. Who knows if I can still do these notes? But I'll give it a go.
(Singing in Latin).
Then it would change keys.
(Singing in Latin).
And this key change was always really difficult.
(Singing in Latin).
GROSS: Oh, so beautiful. Now, what about that opened your voice?
ERIVO: I guess there's a couple of things that are happening. Your breath is different. The way you place - the way you use your tongue is different. The tongue placement is different in your mouth. It's almost like - even the way you use the muscles in your face - often to make those sounds, the - your jaw has to be slightly lowered and relaxed. And often - I don't know if you - when you watch me sing, you'll see that I sing often with a bit of a smile on. One, I'm enjoying myself. But two, when you smile, everything else is relaxed.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cynthia Erivo. She has a new album of songs that she co-wrote, which is called "Ch. 1 Vs. 1," and a new children's book called "Remember To Dream, Ebere." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cynthia Erivo. She starred in the Broadway revival of "The Color Purple," played Harriet Tubman in the film "Harriet," played Aretha Franklin in the TV miniseries "Genius: Aretha," which is streaming on Hulu. She has a new album called "Ch. 1 Vs. 1" and a new children's book called "Remember To Dream, Ebere." I want to play another song from your new album. And this is called "The Good." Do you want to say something about what you were thinking about when you wrote it?
ERIVO: Yeah. So when I wrote it, I - we had gotten to a point where I knew that we needed an up-tempo song. We needed something with, like - that felt upbeat and that felt fun. But I love writing ballads. I love writing love songs. I can't help it. It's so - and so I'm a mid-tempo to slow song.
GROSS: Don't need to apologize.
ERIVO: That's what I do. And I'm - like, I enjoy them. I enjoy singing because of the space in them. But then - and so as we started writing, I thought, well, what can you make this about? And my friend, who is also the EP on this album with me - he said that he had been talking to a friend of ours about the relationship that she had had with her father. She said that the relationship wasn't great all the time, but they were starting to rebuild and that they were starting to have some really good moments. And then he passed away. And then she said, but she just wants to remember the good. And the light bulb went off, and I was like, that's the song, that song. The song is about remembering the good, even when something ends, maybe not in the best of ways.
GROSS: Well, let's hear the song. This is "The Good" from Cynthia Erivo's new album, "Ch. 1 Vs 1."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOOD")
ERIVO: (Singing) Gone is the way we used to smile, my dear. Hope doesn't spring from anywhere. Watching the world forget to breathe, wish we could stop and feel the breeze. But I know there's no point in waiting for what I can't see. Holding my chest as all my tears fall out, my mind's in a spin as all the pain pours down. What can I do to make these days go by? I haven't the strength to make the rainfall die. Just want to remember the good, good, good, good, good, want to remember the good, good, good, good, good. What can I do to make these days go by when darkness surrounds me but I see the light? Just want to remember the good.
GROSS: That's Cynthia Erivo from her new album, "Ch. 1 Vs 1." So this is kind of a personal question in terms of that it has personal meaning for me (laughter). So you're 5-foot-1. Harriet Tubman, who you portrayed, was even shorter. And I'm not quite 5 feet. So as a short person (laughter), I'm wondering if you think it's had much of an impact on your life or your career to be short?
ERIVO: I don't know because I never I mean, the thing is a lot of people don't realize I am as short as I am until they meet me.
GROSS: I did not realize it. I was reading about you, and I was like, really (laughter)?
ERIVO: I mean, I spend a lot of my time in heels. But, like, often when I'm with other people, they're also, like, dressed up or in their heels. And so when I'm standing there, and then they're like, oh my goodness, you're really small. I think there have been times often that people assume that because you're small, you are weak or because you're small - sometimes, people - they often decide that because you're small, you're also childlike, which sometimes is really strange 'cause you have to sort of correct people and let them understand, well, actually, I'm a fully grown adult. I just happen to be small. So my understanding of what you are saying...
ERIVO: ...What anyone else is saying is just the same.
GROSS: What about chairs? Do you find it's hard to find a chair that fits?
ERIVO: Yes, like, chairs that are high enough to get to tables and stuff.
GROSS: Well, you know, chairs are, like, too deep and often too high.
ERIVO: Yeah. And so your legs are swinging off the ground. Yeah.
GROSS: So your legs are - Right. Exactly.
ERIVO: Yeah, that's a thing. So you end up having to, like, perch to the - at the edge of the seat so your feet can touch the ground. Or...
ERIVO: Podiums are hilarious because sometimes you're also like, you know what? Today I'm just going to swallow my pride and ask them for a little step so I can reach the podium and feel like I'm a normal height and reach this thing so I'm not having to tiptoe ever so slightly or wear, you know, 15-inch heels. That is sort of like - it's that - you have to take the good with the bad with it, definitely. Stools, high chairs are really sometimes quite difficult because, you know, if you're singing and you want to sit, you're often on a stool. So you have to try and make sure that the stool is not too high for you to sit on. And so I always make the compromise with whatever dress I'm wearing or whatever clothes because if they cover my feet, you can't see how far my feet are from the ground.
GROSS: If the stool is too high, you have to kind of shimmy onto it...
ERIVO: Shimmy onto it, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...Because you can't reach that height. Your behind doesn't reach that high.
ERIVO: Because I'm, like, making little jumps to get there. It's like...
GROSS: (Laughter) And then slide down.
ERIVO: ...Doing a vault jump. Oh, my goodness.
GROSS: Cynthia Erivo, it's been so delightful to talk with you. Thank you so much for doing this. And just thank you for your work.
ERIVO: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. This has been so much fun. You are wonderful, so thank you.
GROSS: Cynthia Erivo's new album is called "Ch. 1 Vs. 1." Her new children's book is called "Remember To Dream, Ebere." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to an excerpt of my 1995 interview with Colin Powell. He died today of complications of COVID-19. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "SHENANDOAH")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Colin Powell. He died today of complications of COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated. Powell was the first African American national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. During his military career, he served two tours of duty in Vietnam and served in Korea and Germany. During the Carter administration, Powell worked in the Pentagon. In the Reagan administration, he was top military aid to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and then became national security adviser. He was President George H.W. Bush's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As Eric Schmidt wrote in Powell's New York Times obituary, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell was the architect of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but left him in power in Iraq. Years later, in 2003, while serving as President George H.W. Bush's secretary of state, he was the odd man out, fighting internally with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In Powell's 2003 speech at the U.N., he helped pave the way for the U.S. to go to war in Iraq. He came to regret that speech. Today he was praised by politicians in the Republican and Democratic parties. I spoke with Powell in 1995 after the publication of his memoir. It was two years after he'd retired from the military.
At your retirement ceremony, you said, the Army has been my home. The Army has been my life. I am what I am because the Army takes care of its own. And in your memoir, you say that you found a home first in ROTC. What appealed to you about ROTC?
COLIN POWELL: When I entered the City College of New York, I was just short of my 17th birthday, just barely a kid. And I really had no goal in life at that point. I was just a street kid. And after bouncing around college for six months, changing my major, still unsure, I came upon the ROTC program. And I was embraced by the warmth of that fraternity in ROTC. I liked the structure. I liked the discipline. I liked the uniform that made me distinctive. I was suddenly not just a block kid. I was somebody in a uniform. I fell in love with it at that point. It was a love affair with the army that didn't even end upon retirement two years ago.
GROSS: In your memoir, you write, a certain ambivalence has always existed among African Americans about military service. Why should we fight for a country that for so long did not fight for us, that, in fact, denied us our fundamental rights? Did you ever feel that ambivalence yourself? And you served through the '60s and the civil rights movement.
POWELL: No. I never felt that ambivalence. I'm the heir of a proud legacy of Black soldiers who went before me, the buffalo soldiers of the post-Civil War period, the Tuskegee Airmen. And what was put into me was that we served and sacrificed at a time when our nation was not prepared to serve us or sacrifice for us. But we made it. We got ahead. With each passing conflict, we demonstrated that we could do in combat just what our white brothers and sisters could do. And, Powell, you better take advantage of that. You are not to grind your teeth about it. Don't carry a chip on your shoulder. We did this to put you in the position you are now in. And you will not be forgiven if you don't take advantage of our sacrifice. And that's the way I always approached it.
GROSS: Your first tour of Vietnam was late '62 and then through '63. And while you were in Vietnam that year, your wife was living in the city of her birth, Birmingham.
GROSS: That was during a period of church bombings and when authorities were using fire hoses and police dogs to try to stop the civil rights movement. You write your father-in-law sat with a shotgun on his lap to protect his home and his family. Did you ever wish that you were fighting - that you were able to fight in the civil rights movement at home instead of having to fight in a war abroad that you became - a war you became increasingly disillusioned with as the years went on?
POWELL: Yeah. Much of what was happening in Birmingham and in the South during that period never penetrated into the jungles of Vietnam. There were no newspapers. There were no news broadcasts. You would get some news every couple of weeks. And my father-in-law and my wife obviously tried to keep the worst of it from me so as not to cause me any problem. When I came home, I, of course, saw it in spades and learned about my father-in-law with his guns, and it disturbed me. And I was deeply committed to the civil rights movement, but the choice I had made at that point was to be a soldier and to work within the system and to do the best I could.
Yeah, I guess there will always be a lingering feeling that I was enjoying the benefits of an integrated society while Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King and Mr. Abernathy and Joe Lowery and John Lewis and all the other civil rights leaders were out there taking risks every day to make it a better country and also to make things better for me. But as I say in the book, we all had to serve in some way. And the way in which I served was to take advantage of the opportunities that were being created for me and never, never forget that people sacrificed for me and never, never turn my back on my own heritage or origins.
GROSS: How did the civil rights movement, which was challenging the establishment - the white establishment in the United States, affect challenges to authority in the military when you were there?
POWELL: We did everything we could to give all of our youngsters a sense of being equal, a sense of being family. And as a result of our commitment during that period, we came out of the mid-'70s as the most integrated institution in American society with a model that is still being talked about, a model that we can be proud of.
GROSS: At what point did you start to become skeptical of the war in Vietnam?
POWELL: When I first went over, arriving in Vietnam on Christmas Day of 1962 as an adviser, I was all charged up, a young 25-year-old captain there to stop communism, not truly understanding the roots of the conflict, the nationalist roots of the conflict. By the end of that first year of tromping through the jungle and watching our strategy at work, I started to sense that it was going to be a far more difficult task and we'd imagined. And it was a task that involved more than just stopping communism. We were supporting a regime in South Vietnam that did not really fit the model we had in mind of a democratic government, and we were fighting a very, very determined enemy.
By the time I went back in 1968, the regime hadn't improved. And it was clear that we were fighting an enemy that was prepared to match us man for man and prepared to accept enormous suffering. And we were not prepared to suffer equally, and we were not prepared to use all the resources at our disposal to achieve a victory. And so there was a policy-strategy mismatch. There was a mismatch in what we were trying to do militarily and what we were trying to achieve politically. And we all started to become disillusioned with the war at that time, and, of course, we saw that the American people were rapidly becoming disillusioned. And yet the war went on for another several years with many, many thousands of Americans killed.
GROSS: You were described in the New Republic as the prototype of the political general, determined never to let themselves be drawn again into a politician's war, placing new emphasis on learning the rules of the game in Washington and playing it well. Do you agree with that description?
POWELL: Well, I've been characterized by many things - not quite sure if a political general is a condemnation. It certainly isn't intended as a compliment. All I've tried to do over the years is to serve wherever I was assigned to the best of my ability. And I have had political assignments over the years because people thought I did those rather well, and I did whatever I was asked to do to the best of my ability.
It's not a never-again mentality. It's a mentality that says we owe the American people and we owe our political leaders our best advice on how we go to war and how we use the lives of the sons and daughters of the American people. And if we don't provide that advice, whether it is welcome advice or not welcome advice, then we are not doing our job as senior military advisers to the president and stewards of the lives of the sons and daughters of the American people.
GROSS: That was an excerpt of my interview with Colin Powell, recorded in 1995 after the publication of his memoir. He died today. He was 84.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Billy Porter. He starred in the musical "Kinky Boots" and the FX series "Pose." His new memoir is about growing up Black and gay in a church community that insisted he was damned and with a stepfather who sexually abused him. His singing voice was his salvation, but it was still hard to fit in on Broadway and in the music industry. I hope you'll join us.
Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST MIDNIGHT")
BILLY PORTER: (Singing) It's the last midnight. It's the last wish. It's the last midnight. Soon it will be boom, squish. Told a little lie, stole a little gold, broke a little vow - did you? Had to get your prince, had to get your cow, have to get your wish - doesn't matter how. Anyway, it doesn't matter now. It's the last midnight. It's the boom, splat, nothing but a vast midnight.
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