Voice for Change: Barbara Hendricks' Lifelong Commitment to Music and Human Rights

March 4, 2024
Barbara Hendricks, iconic operatic soprano and concert singer.

Season 4 | Episode 1

“Creative Development with IFC” marks International Women's Day with the legendary Barbara Hendricks. Join host Makhtar Diop as he explores Barbara’s journey from the segregated southern USA to the world’s most prestigious opera stages. Beyond the notes, Barbara unveils her passionate work as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and the profound influence of human rights on her life's mission. A voice for the voiceless, Barbara shares lessons in embracing humanitarian action and the importance of women's inclusion in decision-making amid today's complex challenges.

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Makhtar Diop: I am Makhtar Diop the Managing Director of International Finance Corporation. Welcome to my podcast Creative Development with IFC. In honor of International Women's Day, we are celebrating a woman who has made a remarkable impact on the world and continues to inspire. Barbara Hendricks is an iconic figure in opera, classical music and jazz. Renowned for an incredible voice and magnetic presence on stage. Barbara has become one of the most revered sopranos of all times, yet her impact transcends music. Barbara uses her voice as a beacon for human rights advocacy. As the UNHCR’s longest serving Goodwill Ambassador, she has dedicated over 35 years to championing the rights of refugees worldwide, inspiring people around the globe to strive for a more just and compassionate world. Barbara, Happy Women's Day. And welcome to creative development with IFC.

Barbara Hendricks: Thank you, Makhtar.

Makhtar: Barbara, you grew up in the 50s in the segregated south, all of us know it. But what I didn't know was that your first degree is mathematics and chemistry. You worked in an area where actually you have been a minority, a very small minority, which is STEMs with Black woman, at a time of segregation, and opera in the US later. So tell me a little bit, what in your upbringing gave you the sense of doing things that the mainstream people didn't advise you to do?

Barbara: I think I’ll first start off with how it all began. In November 1948. I was born in my grandmother's house, in a place called Stevens, Arkansas, which is very…not even a town. And 20 days later, the United Nations General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That first article is that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should behave toward one another in a spirit of sister and brotherhood.’ My grandparents, nor my grandparents or my parents had ever heard of that declaration. But they knew all too well the Jim Crow laws of segregation that segregated the races in southern states, in public places, hospitals, schools, restaurants, even water fountains. But growing up in that time is really my strength. Because I witnessed a movement, a movement of hope, a movement that life could be better. And I also had an enormous amount of joy. I grew up singing in the church and my father was a pastor. And I was a typical pastor's child [laughs] which means always getting in trouble. I sang in school, but I was guided always to my studies in science, because I was pretty good at it. I liked mathematics. And I like to say that when I was a child, I was very intelligent. So I did those studies and, at the same time, singing in church, and also it was nothing special. You know, I sang because that's what I could do. So, funerals, weddings, my father expected me to sing. I enjoyed the singing so much and singing with others. I enjoyed singing in the choir, at school and in church. But it was something that I thought would always be a part of my life, but not would be the focus of my life. Because my parents taught me as a young Black girl, you will have to be better than the boys, you will have to be better than the white boys, you will have to be better than the white girls to get half as much. And I found that challenge exciting. To know that I could achieve and have the will to achieve and I enjoyed learning. So it was not a sad time. Even though there were events in my life that let me see that it could be a dangerous time. I was eight years old when the Little Rock Nine desegregated -  tried to desegregate the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. That was in 1957 on the fourth of September, if I remember. And it was the first time that I understood the feelings that I had as a child of some kind of ominous fear around us, was there. And also then came the killing of Emmet Till, which affected me, even though my parents tried to hide that from us. But it somehow affected me and, and seeing those young kids, teenagers, trying to attend school at Central High School, I began to understand, yes, there is something there is some fear. But you know, as a child does, I went back to my own life after that day. And I basically was, I've always been a happy and joyful child, a little bit naughty getting into trouble, speaking my mind speaking my mind to power, which at that time was my father. But my parents reminded me that I had to be careful. I couldn't speak my mind all the time when I thought it, in every situation. But I am so grateful that they never taught me to hate. They taught me that the world was a dangerous place and that I would have to be careful, but never to hurt the other. And I'm so grateful for that. Because the message of love that we should have for one another, even though when it's most difficult, is the one the strongest one that stayed with me from growing up, and having my feet firmly planted in the dirt of Arkansas.

Makhtar: That’s just fantastic. From what I read, is the part of the brain, which is functioning when you are doing mathematics is also the part of the brain which is working when you're doing music, and when you are doing improvisation. So I think that you had already all the conditions to use your talent in music to move in your career. But you went to Juilliard, and didn't go and study jazz. You went and study classical music. You must have been one of the few Black women at that time at Julliard studying classical music and opera singing. How was it to go to Julliard after graduating at 20 from your chemistry and math bachelor?

Barbara: It was like jumping into the unknown. How I ended up at Juilliard was that I was in an exchange program at a university in Nebraska. And one of the courses I took as an elective course was singing because I'd never ever studied singing. I'd been in the choir in school, though, also at university - but I never had voice lessons. And I met someone who became a friend who was a music major, who was going to enter a competition, which was the Metropolitan Opera competition. And she said, why don't you come along with me? So I learned a few songs from a recording of Leontyne Price. And for fun, I went to do that competition

And I won.

It was surprising, not because I was a Black woman, but because I was a chemistry major. And so I went on to do the next step of that. I won for the state of Nebraska. And I went on to do the next step for the regionals. And thank God, I did not win because I had no idea what I was doing. I had learned my music from a record. And I have I still have with me, a paper that was written by one of the judges who said, “it's a very lovely voice but what language is she singing?” Because I learned it phonetically from the record. But this thing started. I got people in Lincoln, Nebraska who wanted to support me, and offered me the possibility go to a music school, Summer Music School in Aspen, Colorado, which is where I met my only voice teacher, Jenny Terrell, who then invited me to come to Juilliard to study with her. I went back to university finished my last year because I'm very practical. I was not going to waste those first three years of university without having a diploma in my hand. And I applied to the Juilliard School of Music. And I would say that my encounter with Jenny Terrell was one of the most important in my life…

Because she was great artist. As I said, you know, I was a little bit fighting with my father as a teenager, but I was more like my father than I would like to admit, because I felt.. ‘can I really do a work that gives me this much pleasure?’. I mean, I love singing I've always loved singing. But I was always taught, I should do something, you know, be a doctor, be a teacher, like my mother to help others. But when I worked with Jennie Tourel, I saw the nobility in striving to be an artist. That means she became my definition of what an artist is; someone who is always at the service of their art through their talent, the composer comes first we stand behind. We are the instrument through which the music should go out to the public. But we're not the most important thing. And so that lesson for me, the encounter with her, was absolutely wonderful.

And I would say that I came along in a generation of Black singers where we were quite numerous, because there had been a generation starting with Marian Anderson, the first Black singer to sing at the Metropolitan at the very end of her career, but Leontyne Price, Snhsitley Verrett. So I felt that I did not have to be a first. I didn't have to be a credit to my race, as Leontyne Price had to be, that I could just be me, be the artists that I could be, and to work as hard as I could to really earn the talent that I had received. Meeting Jennie Tourel at Julliard really put me on the road of what I wanted to become. That has made it possible for me now at the age I am to say that I'm finally becoming an artist.

Makhtar: What a lesson in humility you're giving to all of us. So you go to Julliard, you graduate, you start your career, but at a very, very high level. At 26 you become a name in the industry. And 20 years later, you are at Montreux, singing jazz. Tell us a bit about that journey.

Barbara: Well, I've always loved jazz because when I was in high school, my high school choir director was one of the best jazz pianists in Arkansas and I used to babysit. And when his kids would go to sleep. I listened to his records. They were vinyls, you know, of great singers; Ella Fitzgerald Billie Holiday. And I fell in love with jazz. But I always thought it was it was different even from the music I sang in the choir. And of course, when I arrived at Juilliard, I had so much to learn. I had to lean ear training, different languages, also music theory, music history. And Jennie Tourel always inspired me to go and learn, go to the theater, go to concerts. So there was so much to do. I went to listen to jazz, but the idea of including jazz as a part of my repertoire, there was no room for it.

But I was living in Montreux and became friends with Claude Nobs, who was the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. I was a big fan of the festival. I was always there. And my kids absolutely hated to go for walks, but which we liked to do on Sundays. But if we said we were going to go by Claude’s house, they were all up for because Claude had all sorts of music and gadgets. So very often on Sundays, we’d walk, go for a walk, and end up with clods house. And we were talking about Duke Ellington one night, and he had an enormous, his archives of the Jazz Festival. And I said, a great musician, a great human being. And he said, come to the festival and do a tribute to him. And I thought, well, okay, just want one off. Why not? I worked two years to prepare the program. Claude picked out the musicians. It was Monty Alexander, Ira Coleman and Ed Thigpen who had played with Ella Fitzgerald. And we did that program. And when we were rehearsing it, I thought, I love this, I love this work. This is what I love most. This is chamber music. And I thought, when it was over, I thought, what if the audience don't get up and walk out? Maybe this is something I could continue. And so I started at the beginning as a student of jazz to sing jazz and now I am really, I sing blues. And it's really been a long journey to feeling that I can stand on stage and really sing the blues. But of course, I've always been singing the blues because blues, Mozart Requiem, that's blues.

Makhtar: This is fantastic. I didn't talk about all the things that you've done in between, because there's so many things you did. You performed in a movie, you were in all festivals. You are the name of opera singing so you did everything that can be thought of in that area, but it's not easy. We have some instruments just like Ron Carter like Wynton Marsalis which played on both on the on the classical musical side and the jazz side, but not a lot of singers who have been as successful as you in being able to work on the two genre. I can understand now, hearing you talk about your upbringing, the church, being a daughter of a pastor, that somewhere somehow that comes back and naturally helps you to express yourself in jazz. But it was quite interesting for us who were following your career to all of a sudden hear you at Montreaux singing, swinging and so forth. It was quite amazing to do that. But let me turn to something that you are doing now and which just shows your humanity on what you have done. I don't if I quote you properly. I think that you said ‘I don't look at numbers, I look at faces’. And you were talking about refugees, and people who are leaving their country and go and live in other places. First of all, did I quote you, rightly? Is it correct waht I said?

Barbara: Yes, yes. Well, I, it was since 19. In 1986, I met with some people from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, who asked me to be one of their first Goodwill Ambassadors. It was something that they were trying, because countries who had been who still are the biggest donors for the UNHCR, or had decided to pull back in the funding. And so they were looking for a way to go out to raise money for the refugee cause. They gave me lots of information about the organization. And when I looked into it, I realized that this was giving me an opportunity to, to put into action, my belief that human rights must be the foundation of the way we live, and the way we interact with one another. Growing up, I witnessed the civil rights movement I didn't, I was too young to physically take part in it. But as a university student, I was active against the Vietnam War, I was active for women's rights. And I thought, you know, but if we're all in our own corner, fighting for our own rights, then there's always going to be somebody left behind, there's always going to be a group that's left behind. And I found within this universal declaration of human rights that I consider to be my twin, the possibilities for us to be who we are to be different, and to find a way to find solutions to the things that divide us without destroying one another. And I found this work was giving me that opportunity to be on the ground, and to help a cause that has been close to my heart for nearly 40 years. That was supposed to be a one year engagement. And it has now been nearly 40 years that I have been working to support the cause of refugees. I can say that, since then, I have been greatly inspired by my colleagues who work in the field, because they dedicate their lives and some even lost their lives, fighting for the cause of refugees and human rights. But it is the refugees themselves, especially the women who helped me when I'm feeling discouraged or feeling down. I just need to think about some of the women that I have met throughout the years, who were confronted with the most incredible problems and difficulties, who don't give up. And not only do they not give up, they continue to fight with dignity, and with great courage. So when I think about them, I cannot give up either, this work has been an inspiration for me. So when I was talking about numbers, you know, we are now facing after so many conflicts among the greatest multitude of refugees that the organization has ever had to deal with. We're now over 114 million people. Ah, it is a great number. And it's a number that is so big, it can make you think there's nothing I can do. But there is, because there is one child, one family, that if we can help make a difference it's worth it's worth all the work. So this work has been interchangeable, really with my work that I do on stage. Because when I'm in a concert, very often, there are a moments where I feel like the audience, my colleagues on stage, and I are... there is something going on that - we're all connected, as if the audience is listening with one single ear. And I think that when those moments happen, and from the place that that happens within in us, is where that Universal Declaration of Human Rights has sprung from us, out of humanity. In that moment, we realize that we're all members of the same family, which is called humanity. And I would say that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us that we're all brothers and sisters in this family of humanity. But then the convention the 1951 Convention on refugees, which helped establish the UNHCR gives us a roadmap for how we should take care of one another.

Makhtar: This is just powerful, what you just said and the connection that you made between the moment of connection that you have on stage, when you play music, and the purpose that you have to help changing the lives of some people is quite powerful. And I will remember it for a long time what you just said.

You have been another leading force behind the #IBelong campaign by UNHCR. It is interesting because through that journey, we have not only thought about humanitarian, but we are trying to combine more and more development and the refugees. Its not about refugees from one country to another but we have also the internally displaced people - also a large number of those people who have left their birth place to go to other places. So where we fit, IFC, is to really come and build on that nexus between refugees and development, because actually refugees are a big contributor to economic development in our countries. We started working with UNHCR in Kenya, where you have close to two generations of people now living there. There is an economy there, there is an economy surrounding the camp. And we've been working with UNHCR to provide credit and loans and financial services to the community. I just came not a long time ago from Colombia, where we are also doing the same with the refugees from Venezuela, in Brazil, and other places. We have developed a joint initiative with UNHCR, we have built a joint Secretariat, which is based in Istanbul, and we are about to create an advisory board. And if you are available to join that advisory board, we would be delighted to have your wisdom and ideas to help us shape what we are doing jointly with UNHCR. But I want to say is that what you just said is exactly what we think, and that voices like yours are important to be able to carry that very strong message. And thank you for doing it for so long. You didn't do it for one day, two days, one year. You did it for decades, and you’re still there. What do you want to say to artists who are starting their careers today. Not at the time of segregation. Not at the time of civil rights movement. Not at the time of decolonization. Not at the time when a lot of things changed in the 60s and 70s? What do you want to tell them about embracing a cause?

Barbara: For every human being we have to just, we can't live in the past, we cant have the battles of the past. Because the battles of today are quite daunting, I would think. And I think that every generation has to step up to the challenge of their time. But I think being true to yourself being true to what, who you are and what you can do. I don't you know, not everyone can go into the field. Not everyone can do the work that some of my colleagues do in the field. It is not for everyone. But I think if you keep your eyes open, and you look around you, there's always someone who needs a smile. A helping hand. Oh, you don't need to go far. I think humanitarian action begins where we are; at home, in your family, at your office, on the street where you live. Because the outpouring of solidarity is not something that you do in special situations. It has to be a part of your daily life. It is not easy,  as matter of fact, I think it's hardest within families. But there is where the training comes. And then when big, when big decisions are needed to be made on a lot on a global scale. Then we find those answers easily because we've been trained, we've been we've trained ourselves to live in a way that we care about others. So I would say to artists, your answer for what you should do is in your own heart, I make no judgments on the choices that other people make you because you have to make the one that is right for you. And the one where you can be truest to yourself, I would say that it's it's easier than you think, to give a little bit of love.

Makhtar: Thank you very much, because I think that is an important message. During those eras that I referred to, it was very clear why you had to fight for freedom, fight for human rights, fight for equality of race, fight for independence, fight for a lot of things. And I when I think about the younger generation, I think it's more difficult for them to, to think about a cause to focus on and to put their energy behind. Having people like you who have been embracing a cause for such a long time, hearing from you I think will be a very good inspiration for them to find their own path in this very complex world that we are facing.

Barbara: I have great faith in this young generation. They inspire me enormously. I mean, you know, being the grandmother, when I'm meeting with young activists They're inspiring me enormously. I think they are their values are there. They're questioning the values of our generation. They're questioning some of the things that we didn't do. I have great faith, and they give me hope. And I guess it's because I am a grandmother, I am a doting grandmother. The future that I hope for my grandchildren is, is one that's hopeful. And so I have a great deal of hope, and that the younger generation are going to do their part and step up in these times to face those challenges.

Makhtar: I have no doubt. There are things they are showing us every day by pushing the envelope. But I think that your historical perspective, and what you have done is extremely valuable. And I'm sure that they value the conversations that they're having with you. I cannot leave the conversation without asking you a question related to music. You are living in Sweden, I understand living in Sweden for a long time.

Barbara: Between Sweden and Switzerland.

Makhtar: Quite a few American great artists spend a significant amount of time in Europe. What is it about it?

Barbara: Well, I mean, I would say that most of my, the great decisions in my life have been based on one thing and that is love. I fell in love with a Swedish man, and moved to Europe. And also the work I do is very, it is European, basically. And so that I felt very at home doing my work here, and was very easily accepted doing work that I say to young students when I was singing, to explain to them why I was singing music by dead white men. Because that music, there was something that music that touched me as much as some music of Duke Ellington. But what brought me to Europe was love. And I think if you follow love, you can never go wrong.

Makhtar: Beautifully said, Barbara. It's just fantastic to be able to talk to you as we are coming close to International Women's Day. And we are just ending the Black history mouth. And we are looking also different challenges which are not only about race, about gender, but about multiple dimension.

Barbara: And I wanted to say about women's day, women must have a place at the table. We must listen to them. Because the political decisions that impact women throughout the world need to be taken up by women so that we can prevent the persecutions in the wars that cause forced displacement, and that we can find durable solutions. I think it is time for women to have their  rightful place at the table. I think the young women in front of me are going to make that happen.

Makhtar: That's exactly what should happen. And I hope the world will evolve faster in that direction. For me, yeah, it's been a tremendous honor to talk to you, to hear your experience and I'm sure that people who are listening to this podcast will be really enjoying what you just said.

Barbara: Thank you Makhtar.

Makhtar: Thanks for listening, Creative Development is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Maeve Frances and Aida Holly-Nambi for IFC. Thanks for listening and tell a friend.

Clarification at 20:25: IBelong is a UNHCR campaign that aims to end statelessness by identifying and protecting stateless people, resolving existing situations of statelessness and preventing the emergence of new cases. Learn more at