"A matter of purely talent and then oh, it just so happens that I am black”
Forest Row-based opera and musical theatre singer Rodney Earl Clarke – recently seen performing the National Anthem at Twickenham before England’s Six Nations Rugby match against France – cites a hugely encouraging tale.
“I was giving a workshop in a school, a musical workshop, and we were talking about character analysis and we were looking at pictures. And I showed them a picture of an aristocratic black man with an angry face. I wanted them to pick three distinctive things about this man and I said ‘Hands up!’ And not a single one of the 30 children mentioned that he was black. They said things like he looked like he was angry and that he looked like he had a lot of money, but none of them said he was black.
“And I think that is a very significant example of how the older generation has become the problem. We have taught people to delineate according to race, but that has not been passed to the children, and that’s the good thing.”
For Rodney, it is all about encouraging the nurturing and inspirational environments which make aspiration possible – which is all part of why he was so pleased to “get a second bite” at the rugby.
Rodney was the first black British opera singer to be asked to sing the National Anthem, a proud moment in history. But first time round, Rodney felt it was an opportunity missed because no visuals of Rodney were shown on ITV. He was delighted to be asked to do it a second time, and second time round, he was seen.
“It was really exciting for me to have this opportunity to really try to inject some optimism into what had really been quite a turbulent time. For me it was about being able to show the diversity we have got in the UK. For black youngsters it is not always easy to see people occupying certain positions in society and to think that they can see themselves in those positions in the future. For me, it was important to afford that opportunity – to get them to see that it is possible, that here is someone who is good enough and ‘Oh look, that person happens to look like me!’Throughout my career, I have worked with some amazing people. I am now in my early 40s, and I keep thinking to myself ‘now what can I do to make a difference, what can I do to have a positive impact on other people?’”
Education was key, says Rodney who moved to Forest Row with his family five years ago: “Growing up I was given the opportunity of attending a very, very good school because my parents had the curiosity and hard work of me pursuing and really seeking out what is important.”
He became a chorister at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark: “And that enabled me to embrace my love of music and being part of a team, being part of a choir, that camaraderie, of being with like-minded youngsters whatever their background. It all boils down to education and opportunity.
“You have to understand what you are going into. I see it as an opportunity to shine in the art form of singing. I was very good from an early age, and I just never allowed colour to get in the way and nor will I let it. I shine. And I work my bottom off to make sure that I am the best possible version of what I can be. It is a matter of purely talent and then oh, it just so happens that I am black.”
Hence the importance of those Twickenham opportunities: “When I sing the National Anthem, I sing it with gratitude for all the perseverance, blood, sweat and tears my ancestors gave to not only help build the UK but to afford the opportunities I now have.
“The challenges that many have endured in the past cannot and must never be forgotten so I sing this Anthem with pride of being British and dedication to them.”
It comes as Rodney releases his new single Mantra,