Davis spoke to Vibha Singh about his fight against racism for the last 50 years and mission to understand the reason behind hate and prejudice in different cultures during his three-week visit to India.
Tell us about your journey from musician to an activist?
It was beyond me that someone who had never seen me before, someone who had never spoken to me before, someone who knew absolutely nothing about me, would want to inflict pain upon me for no other reason than the colour of my skin. Since age 10, when first confronted with the realities of racism, I used to ponder on one question: How can you hate me when you don’t know me? I went on to read many books about white supremacy, racism and colour. Though books spoke about the issue, none answered the questions. I then wrote a book, Klan-Destine Relationships, which documents my experiences tackling racism one step at a time.
How did you get involved in it?
There were several racist incidents in my life as a child that pushed me in this direction. Not one specific one, but several specific ones, from having rocks thrown at me while marching in a Scout parade, being told by the head of the American Nazi Party that he was going to ship me back to Africa, to racist encounters with police officers and the list goes on and on. The KKK is a white supremacy cult founded in 1865 organizing members to persecute people for the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs. I then decided to battle the hatred and decided to confront the ideology of the KKK head-on one member at a time.
Can you share your first time experience with a Klan member and how you convinced him to leave?
In most of the meeting I had with Klan members, they would tell me the reasons for why they were members in the first place. As our relationship would grow, they would begin questioning their own belief system and eventually decide they were wrong to remain in the organization. I always treated them with respect as human beings. I set out to learn about them and they ended up converting themselves. Several hundred members have left the Klan as a result, some have even given me their ceremonial robes and hoods as a gesture to signify their departure from the group and I have amassed roughly 40 robes and hoods from people who used to rank as high as Imperial Wizards and Grand Dragons in the Klan.
What role do you think music has in bridging racial gaps?
Music is indeed the universal language and unites people. When I reached the airport in India, the driver started playing American songs. I told him to instead play some local music. As I love listening to music from different cultures and places. I have seen at so many instances how even racists enjoy music. Even those in my audience, including members of Klan. Many of the members used to compliment me on my musical performances. A simple example is how Rock and Roll brought people together, regardless of their skin colour. All of them would come together to dance to the music. I was really impressed that Mumbai has a blues music festival and rock ‘n’ roll in Ahmedabad and Chennai.
What fascinates you most about India?
Travel gives me exposure and a worldview. I wanted to visit India because I have always wanted to explore the country. More than that, I found a big resemblance between the caste system in India and racism in the United States. The diversity in the Indian culture and the caste system based on classicism always intrigued me.
What do you think is the right approach to fight racism and casteism?
You need a multi-pronged strategy; from the front, from the side, from the back, through the rear door, whatever. There have been some incidents in which I was threatened and a couple of instances where I had to physically fight. Fortunately, I won in both instances. You don’t change the system without changing the people behind the system. That’s why I sat down with them and I have had success. Every individual can make a difference and impact on their friends and associates. Instead of running from hate, I embraced it, and combatted it with informed, peaceful engagement to great success. I try to establish trust and friendships with those who most think wouldn’t, and indeed couldn’t, ever trust me or be willing to befriend me.