We spoke to actor Arinzé Kene about his role as Same Cooke in the Donmar Warehouse production of One Night In Miami.
Cooke was a ground-breaking artist beyond just a creative capacity in that he crossed genres (at risk of losing his gospel career) and took control of his music management. How much do you think these chapters of his life would influence his role in the civil rights movement, or vice-versa?
There were several differing views at the time on what the best methods to combat racial injustice were. Some saw peaceful protest as an ideal route while other activists took the ‘eye for an eye’ approach. Sam Cooke, being the businessman that he was, fought a unique fight. He put his politicals in his music and it can be heard in A Change Gonna Come and that’s why the song became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.
What was a seemingly small detail about Cooke that had a significant impact on your understanding of him?
When he started his own record label and saw the benefits of keeping all of his music, he didn’t keep it to himself. He evangelised. He tried to get other artists to do the same. And live on air, when asked what his ultimate goal was, he replied “for all of my artists to have hit records”. He really wanted others to do well. He wanted to share his success and went to great lengths to do so. He hired people he knew growing up and he signed people from his church to his record label. He changed the course of music because he was so generous.
Amongst the figures depicted in the play, Cooke is unique in that he is the only one among them who is an artist rather than an athlete or a political figure. How do you feel that may have set his perspective apart from the other ones in the room, if at all?
I think that in 1964 black artists were idolised in quite a similar way to black atheletes. Sam, Cassius Clay, and Jim Brown, there was a lot of common ground they shared. I think Sam’s unique perspective comes from him being an individual, not so much that fact he was an artist or a performer.
Do you feel that there are any contemporary cultural figures who represent the people depicted in One Night In Miami? If not, why do you think that is?
I don’t think there are many but there are some. The LeBron James Family Foundation donated $41M to send kids to college. Draymond Green doesn’t make half as much as LeBron and he donated $3.1M to Michigan State. Colin Kaepernick, NFL player, took a knee during the Star Spangled Banner and when asked about it afterwards his response was, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”. I think if there are contemporary figures who represent the people in One Night In Miami, its these guys, to name a few.
Sam Cooke and Malcolm X would not make it out of the 60’s without tragic and violent ends, whereas Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali would continue to carry on their legacies of civil/ social/ racial equality. To what degree do you feel Sam Cooke would have enhanced his legacy and social change had he lived?
I think he’d have continued to fight through his music and through music management. Music changes lives. It saves lives. Through Sam Cooke, several people at the time who had aversions to black people, were able to see different. I think he’d have inspired more artists similar to him that they can do both, make money while doing what they love and fight for equality.
How aware were you of the relationships depicted in this play prior to your involvement in the project? What did you find the most intriguing or illuminating about it once you invested so much thought?
I had no idea that these men knew each other so intensely. I knew that Clay and Sam were friends and that Malcolm helped Clay become Ali, but that was all. Exploring this play really opened my mind. It showed me that it’s important to do the right thing with your power. These men gained a platform and they all used it for something that was greater than them. Greater than their legacy combined will ever be.
What Sam Cooke song does everyone reading this need to drop everything and listen to immediately?
A Change Is Gonna Come
Arinzé Kene recently won Best Supporting Actor at the Evening Standard Film Awards for his role in The Pass, in cinemas now (UK). He can also be seen in Crazyhead on Netflix (UK). He wrote the play good dog, which opens at the Watford Palace Theatre on 14 February 2017 before touring nationally (UK).
As told to Paul Vaughan for TPJ
Photographer: Jessie Craig