The Concert For Peace And Justice: Crying To Kirk Franklin, Dancing To Stevie Wonder, And Questlove's Kanye T-Shirt
The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum opened its doors to the public Thursday. To celebrate its opening the organization hosted the Concert for Peace and Justice, which featured performances from Common, Robert Glasper, the Alabama State University Choir, Usher, Kirk Franklin, The Roots, and a special guest appearance by Stevie Wonder.
Set at the Riverwalk Amphitheater in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, the concert was the biggest that the city has ever had according to several of its residents. Although most of the attendees present were from Montgomery, some had traveled from Birmingham and Atlanta to see the concert.
For my first time in Alabama, I was struck by how beautiful the Riverwalk Amphitheater is. The luscious, green grass; the Alabama River flowing gently behind the amphitheater stage. In the context of the memorial and museum as well as Alabama’s ties to slavery, it was symbolic to have this concert here. That after generations of anger, hostility, and oppression against black people, the state’s capital was about to have its biggest concert — and with a predominantly black lineup too.
As the night settled over Montgomery, the show began to start, with Common, Glasper, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and the ASU Choir taking the stage. The ensemble performed a somber but lively rendition of Common’s “Letter to the Free,” the song that earned the Chicago rapper an Emmy after it was included in Ava DuVernay‘s 13th documentary.
The song doesn’t refrain from talking about the brutal reality black people in this country endure on a day-to-day basis. Yes, slavery is gone. But it has manifested itself in other ways, particularly through the prison industrial complex and police brutality.
“There’s no running from our collective history,” Common said during his set. “No matter what color you are, we have to acknowledge it…It’s the pain and the healing that needs to happen.”
This sentiment was a recurring theme throughout the night. The United States’ biggest problem is one of accountability, specifically in regards to slavery. The ramifications of this deadly and dehumanizing system still plague this nation. And yet, we’re barely beginning to have a real and productive conversation on this.
To start off with “Letter to the Free” was to make a statement. Reconciliation in this country can’t be achieved without accountability and acknowledgment. And until that’s done, the nation will never fully grow and heal from such a horrific part of its past.
But in reconciliation comes hope. Most of the music performed throughout the night carried a sense of hope and resilience — from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert‘s Jon Batiste performing the civil rights anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” to Valerie June covering John Lennon‘s “Imagine.”
But no performer embodied those two words during their performance like Kirk Franklin did. The gospel music icon took the crowd to the church. Accompanied by a full band — that included Questlove on drums — and choir, Franklin performed “Stomp,” “Rain Down On Me,” and “Don’t Worry,” as well as covered the Bill Withers classic “Lean On Me.”
Franklin’s performance was a standout for the concert. But it also provided a moment of catharsis for me. As the gospel artist went into a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” commonly referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” I was brought to tears.
I haven’t been to church since I was a pre-teen but I’ll never forget each and every Sunday service beginning with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The voices of black people both young and old swelling up the church, as if we were giving each other the strength we needed to get ready for another week. Maybe it was the nostalgia; maybe it was singing the song alongside hundreds of other black people; maybe it was both. But that cry was something I needed — even if I didn’t realize it.
Having cried, as well as being exhausted from standing throughout the entire concert, I wasn’t sure I was prepared for Wonder’s special performance. However, it seemed as if Wonder was in a similar poignant and contemplative mood.
“I come to you with a deep pain in my heart and a great love in my soul,” Wonder said. “I dare you, I challenge you, to have a year of atonement. I dare you artists and you leaders of the world and this nation — including you, Mr. President — to see with your eyes that are open as clearly as my eyes that are blind…My hope is that we will come together as a united people before it’s too late.”
When Wonder directly called out Donald Trump I couldn’t help but look at Questlove, who was wearing a t-shirt that read “Kanye West Doesn’t Care About Black People.” The shirt was a subtle but powerful statement; a reminder of America’s current political climate. That there’s a man trying to undo all the progress that has truly made this country great, and there are people ignorantly following his lead.
I feel as if Wonder wanted to say more about Trump but he couldn’t, considering he was there to perform. But his song selection arguably said more than he could’ve. “Higher Ground,” “Visions,” “I’ll Be Loving You Always,” and a rousing rendition of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Wonder’s set was captivating in its unpredictability.
“This song was not planned,” Wonder said, referring to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” “It’s a song I wanted to do in the spirit of the thousands of people who were lynched.”
There was a sense of experimentation throughout Wonder’s set that I found exhilarating. I’ve seen him perform prior to this more than once and he often plays the hits — what everybody wants to hear. But it was refreshing to see him man put on a set that was more intent on telling a story. Wonder really wanted us to feel something through his set — the highs and the lows. Because that’s what life is.
However, even in a reflective mood, Wonder still chose hope, ending his performance with “Another Star,” which featured each and every artist that performed throughout the night.
As I walked back to my hotel from the concert I came across a monument that detailed the case of the City of Montgomery v. Rosa Parks. The case, which stemmed from Rosa Parks‘ refusal to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery bus, was won by the city. But the case led to a one-day bus boycott and, ultimately, the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, which contributed to the desegregation of buses throughout Alabama.
This concert for Peace and Justice could’ve never happened without Parks. Without Martin Luther King Jr. Without Stokely Carmichael. Without John Lewis. Without people who risked their lives for peace and justice. I touched the monument and continued on, the voices of people of all backgrounds congregating together in downtown Montgomery becoming a distant murmur behind me.