Leila Negra, the stage name of Marie Nejar (born March 20, 1930), is an Afro-German singer and actress. She began her career as a child film actor in the 1940s, became a singer after World War II, and left performing in the late 1950s to become a nurse.
Family and early childhood
She was born Marie Nejar in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany. Her father was a black sailor out of Liverpool, England, who originally came from Ghana; he saw his daughter only a few times. Her mother, Cécilie, was the daughter of a white German woman and a creole man from the island of Martinique. Cécilie was initially disowned by her family on account of her interracial relationship. She concealed her pregnancy from her family and placed Marie in an orphanage when she was born. When Marie was three years old, Cécilie removed her from the orphanage and they moved to Hamburg to be near Cécilie's mother, with whom Cécilie had reconciled. Cécilie, who worked as a musician, bled to death following an abortion when Marie was 10 years old and Marie was then cared for by her maternal grandmother.
Marie grew up in the multi-ethnic Hamburg docklands. When the National Socialists came to power, she was exposed to hostility because of her dark skin. Due to the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, she was unable to finish her education and instead had to do forced labor in a factory. By her own account, she survived the early years of Nazism with the help of sympathetic people in her community, including the police; later her appearances in propaganda films offered protection.
Career as performer
Her film career as a performer began as a result of a search instigated by Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, for black children who could play African natives in various films being made by UFA, which had been taken over by the Nazis in 1933. Nejar first appeared in the 1943 fantasy film Münchhausen, performing as a black servant with a fan. Only 12 years old when the film was shot, she didn't realize it was propaganda and was happy to have two weeks off school. Soon she had a small role in the comedy Quax in Africa (produced in 1943/44 and released in 1947) as the daughter of an African tribal chief.
After the war ended in 1945, she worked in the winters at a bar and in the summers as a cigarette girl at a resort. Asked to test a microphone one evening for other performers, she impressed the audience and the musicians with her talent and turned to a career as a singer. It was at this time that she adopted the stage name Leila Negra. Just 20 when she got a contract with a record company, she was promoted as a 15-year-old child star. Over the next decade, she had a number of hit songs, including the title song from the 1952 film Toxi, which was about the first wave of children born to black Allied servicemen and white German mothers. She was the first to record the Gerhard Winkler song "Mütterlein", which subsequently became a hit for both Frankie Laine and David Whitfield with English lyrics under the title "Answer Me, My Love". She toured with the Austrian singer Peter Alexander as well as with other musicians.
In her mid-twenties, after a career spanning half a dozen films and some 30 songs, she withdrew from performing as Leila Negra. In 1957, she began training as a nurse, which became her career for the remainder of her working life.
In 2007, she published her autobiography, Mach nicht so traurige Augen, weil du ein Negerlein bist: Meine Jugend im Dritten Reich (Do Not Look So Sad Because You Are a Little Negro: My Youth in the Third Reich). The title is taken from one of her hit songs from the 1950s.
As of 2015, she was retired and still living in Hamburg.
- Raffington, Jermaine. Interview with Marie Nejar. YouTube, Aug. 1, 2015.
- "Marie Nejar Remembers Her Childhood in Nazi Germany". Black Central Europe, 2015.
- Jet, May 15, 1952, p. 59.
- Michael, Theodor. Black German: An Afro-German Life in the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 6.
- Layne, Priscilla. "Leila Negra and the Struggle for a Black German Identity". UNC Global. Information about talk on April 15, 2012.
- Fenner, Angelica. Race under Reconstruction in German Cinema: Robert Stemmle's Toxi. University of Toronto Press, 2011.
- Kutner, Jon, and Spencer Leigh. 1,000 UK Number One Hits Omnibus Press, 2010.
- Nejar, Marie. Mach nicht so traurige Augen, weil du ein Negerlein bist: Meine Jugend im Dritten Reich (Do Not Look So Sad Because You Are a Little Negro: My Youth in the Third Reich). With Regina Carstensen. Rowohlt, 2007. ISBN 978-3-499-62240-3.