Recap: Blackout for Human Rights Raises Spirits + $156K In Donations
This past Sunday, while everyone else was tuned into the Oscars, Flint, Michigan residents got something they haven’t seen in quite some time: the VIP treatment and a show with more than a dozen of the biggest names in entertainment.
Crowds of all ages, multiple races and both genders gathered around The Whiting Auditorium for the free #JusticeForFlint concert, which was put together by Blackout for Human Rights. Doubling as a fundraiser, city residents lined up in two lines—Flint natives and other attendees. “Flintstones,” as natives and residents of the city call themselves, were let in first to get the best seats in the house.
For those who have yet to become familiar with Blackout for Human Rights, the collective and network is founded by filmmakers Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) and Ava DuVernay (Selma). There attempt to shift the focus away from #OscarsSoWhite to #JusticeForFlint came in the form of hope and reassurances from award-winning musicians, actors and filmmakers who breaking free from the radio and big screen to be seen live and in living color.
More than a dozen celebrities and advocates against human injustice from around the country came to Flint to show their support and to offer strength. Coogler, DuVernay, actor Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy) and comedian Hannibal Buress shared hosting and introduction duties for performances of a stellar nature. Given the activist element embedded into the show, some of the celebrated guests sang and rhymed dedicated protest music. Vic Mensa cleverly reworked the lyrics of his single, “U Mad” to reflect the water crisis and debuted “16 Shots,” a song about Chicago shooting victim Laquan McDonald.
Ledisi’s set was highlighted by a soulful performance of Sam Cooke’s “Change Gon’ Come” and her song, “Alright,” all the while St. Louis fire-spitter, Tef Poe, brought his passionate protest rhymes with one of the evening’s highlights. Mysonne rapped about stereotypes in hip-hop; Jasiri X, outfitted in a Public Enemy hoodie, spewed bars about police brutality and systemic oppression. “12 Years a Slave, we’re still fighting for freedom,” Jas rapped near the beginning of the show. Empire star Jussie Smollet and our favorite Londoner, Estelle, sang their duet, “Conqueror,” in an attempt to motivate residents to push through their struggles.
Andra Day, the Grammy nominated songstress, sent Flint residents and celebrated guests alike a video performance, as actor Mark Ruffalo, who would be awarded with an Oscar Award later that night, gave his well wishes to the Flintstones via video, as well. Others simply came to town to do what they do best—perform and put on a show—as Musiq Soulchild and Robert Glasper offered the crowd a chance to simply enjoy themselves. “I know it’s a lot of crap going on, but we’re going to stay positive, right?” the “Aijuswanaseing” songwriter said, before performing songs from his stellar catalog. Glasper joked with the crowd before getting into a soulful set of songs with his band, and Jazmine Sullivan gave words of support to them between her songs. Detroit was definitely in the building, as Royce Da 5’9”, Denaun Porter and Dej Loaf gave strong performances. The D12 member and Aftermath affiliated act, Denaun, offered a personal apology for not taking the water crisis more serious, pleading for others to help in the effort to rebuild, “All of my celebrity friends, you need to stand up and help your people more,” he said.
How did the night's headliner impact the entire #JusticeForFlint benefit? Find out more on Pg. 2...
Janelle Monae lived up to her billing as the evening’s headliner, bringing the same vibrancy she has built her reputation upon. She was rolled onstage on a stretcher, and unsheathed in a white straightjacket before singing and dancing through a mix of her own songs (“Cold World,” “Electric Lady,” “Tightrope) and covers (James Brown’s “I Feel Good). With backup dancers and band members all in step, everyone on the stage for Janelle’s show wore “Justice For Flint” t-shirts and energized the crowd with grace and ferocity. After performing a cover of Jackson 5’s “One More Chance,” Janelle introduced a surprise performance from Motown legend, Stevie Wonder. The exhilarating respond the crowd gave him was truly awe-inspiring. Wonder, a Michigan native himself, shared a few words about the water crisis, comparing the need to oust Governor Rick Snyder to the way he would oust a music director who didn’t do his job correctly.
“Same song, different key,” Wonder said.
He would then go on to perform “Love’s In Need of Love” and “Higher Ground” with Janelle Monae. Together, they ended the show by inviting Flint residents onstage for a group performance of “Hellutalmbout,” which Janelle Monae and Jidenna’s protest song against police brutality. Star power was what attracted national media to the #JusticeForFlint issue, even after the original story broke in 2014. Most of those who came to perform kept their appearances short, between two and four songs, as it was the Flintstones who were the stars of the show. Rapper Mama Sol rhymed an acapella that mentioned the syphilis-infecting Tuskegee Experiment before running through the optics that Flint residents have been experiencing since the Flint River switch.
“Inappropriate protocol, cutting your costs, but what’s the sense of saving money though when lives are lost,” she rhymed.
Dr. Dre protégé, Jon Connor, a noteworthy Flintstone if ever there was one, rocked the crowd with a song he wrote dedicated to the crisis. He shouted out his friends and family who still lived in the city. Natasha Thomas-Jackson and Nate Marshall teamed up for a poem about the wars that their respective hometowns of Flint and Chicago have waged upon poor people of color. “Right now, it’s us. Next, it’s you,” they said in unison. In perhaps the evening’s most powerful performance, children — four girls, and one boy — from Flint’s art organization “Raise It Up! Youth and Tapology,” combined for a powerful suite of poetry and tap dancing. Their pieces covered asserted control over their dreams, their bodies and their lives — showing that they aren’t defined by the crisis that brought press and celebrities to their town.
Audience members were just as encouraging and praiseworthy to their locals as they were to the celebrities. Surviving in Flint meant just as much, if not more, than a Grammy or Oscar trophy or a song on the radio.
Not all Flint residents were talented in the Arts, but their voices were just as amplified. Actor Hill Harper, Flint activist Nayyirah Shariff and others would guide adults and children onstage and give them the space to simply speak to the audience about the stresses and trauma that have come with the water crisis. A pregnant Flint woman spoke about losing her unborn twins from the poisonous water, while children offered heartbreaking stories of having to bathe in baby wipes and use bottled water to function at home and at school.
#JusticeForFlint, as an event that aimed to help out a community going through controversy, raised $156,000 through 4,000 donations. The monies secured by Blackout for Human Rights will be put into a fund ran by area activists and leaders that are dedicated to long-and-short-term help for residents impacted by the water crisis. While the show doesn’t mark the end of the danger, it was a much-needed break from the stress and helped Flintstones of different ages and backgrounds to relax, own their own stories and deny others from telling them instead.
William E. Ketchum III covers entertainment, pop culture, race and politics for the likes of The Guardian, NPR, Billboard and more. Follow him (and us!) on Twitter at @WEKetchum.