I can only remember having nightmares once as a child: the night my dad explained to me the meaning of "41 Shots." My father translated the lesser known Springsteen song and told my ten-year-old self of Amadou Diallo, the innocent black man at whom 41 shots were fired on the streets of New York City. He was a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant killed outside his Bronx apartment in 1999 when four officers mistook his reaching for a wallet as drawing a gun. And Springsteen (the object of my dad's lifelong respect and adoration) wrote a song to call out such a brutal act of violence.
The refrain “you can get killed just for living in your American skin" haunted me for days; it still does. I couldn't fathom being targeted for the color of my skin; I still can't. Such an egregious use of force was terrifyingly incomprehensible; it still is.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I elected not go to synagogue – despite the fact that I turned down The White House invitation to SXSL because I cherish and hold space for tradition, for faith, for those core principles and values at the head of our new year. Instead, I landed in Atlanta and elected to join Many Rivers To Cross: A Festival of Music, Art, and Justice.
I drove directly to the farm venue to catch the final two hours of the program, walking up the dusty path to spoken word by female artists from Flint to New Orleans. They not only said Sandra Bland's name, but the names of too many black women killed at the hands of police or wrongfully incarcerated in the broken criminal justice system.
I climbed the hill to oversized letters spelling out HUMAN RIGHTS. Friends, families, couples took photos with the perfectly Instagrammable vista. The words BLACK LIVES MATTER of a similar stature were positioned nearby.
From that perch, I heard a woman onstage ask, "Did anybody learn anything?" A resounding “YES!” rang out from the crowd of thousands, mostly seated among blankets, chairs, and tents on the grassy slope.
I descended to the words of Reverend Barber, denouncing a maniac, a race baiter, a supposed leader jangling the cord of injustice. He specifically said that in this election cycle, we cannot bow down to one who "acts like we don't know anything of the history of liberation and justice and struggle for equality;” we cannot sacrifice women and children, the poor for the wealthy, public education or LGBT rights. The Reverend called for more music of mercy, harmonies of love, sounds of life, dances to the rhythm of freedom, and bows to liberation. He spoke to current events, saying, "We're not against police. We're against bad policy who shoot us on the spot,” and cited real life circumstances of carrying skittles (Trayvon Martin), a wife shouting of a brain injury (Keith Lamont Scott), a four-year-old in the back seat (Philando Castile). Reverend Barber went on to quote James Brown and Bob Marley among other great thinkers and lyricists, about redemption and justice. We were most certainly in his church, or in my case during the high holidays, his synagogue.
Enticing aromas of fried food (specifically funnel cakes, which sold out entirely!) lured me toward a row of tents with plumes of smoke rising toward the fiery darkening sky. "This one, this is the one," a gentleman tapped my shoulder. It was the first time I'd seen "veggie” scrawled on an upcycled cardboard sign. I was sold. A group of Jamaicans craving the flavors of home and I waited patiently for new batches of plantains and breadfruit to come off the heat. I walked away with an overstuffed box of rice and peas, mixed veggie, cabbage, roasted breadfruit and sweet plantains – transporting me to the Caribbean for a moment, as memories of boxed lunches in the field hospital in Haiti, cookouts in Barbados, and farm days in Jamaica flooded my mind.
Danny Glover took the stage. The Morehouse College Glee Club performed the national anthem, punctuated with thunderous bass drum. Rosario Dawson invoked Maya Angelou, “Good done anywhere is good done everywhere.” She challenged the crowd, sharing wisdom and truth, “As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.” Alice Smith quoted Martin Luther King Jr. about the need for continuous struggle to bring about transformation. Aloe Blacc said Dr. King was woke before beginning his own "Wake Me Up;” the megahit carried new weight. I was brought to tears by the ghastly lyrics of "Strange Fruit." This is all in addition to performances by the likes of Macklemore, Usher, TI, Public Enemy, Dave Matthews and Carlos Santana – and THE Maxwell!!!! – and words by Jessie Williams, Van Jones, Chris Tucker, Michael B. Jordan, among brilliant luminaries.
John Legend’s rendition of Glory was haunting, as Common joined him to underline that “justice for all ain't specific enough.” And then, 41 Shots.
41 Shots. “You can get killed just for living in your American skin.” The lyrics which haunted me as a child took on another level of tragedy in the present day, amid a climate of intense racial violence. A projected photo of Trayvon Martin’s larger-than-life face stared out at us all.
John Legend probed the audience: "Each time a lack child loses his life thanks to race hatred, was there something I could have done, a song I could have sung, a word I could have written?” Another powerful voice joined the chorus to celebrate art and music as a force for change.
I had no phone for the majority of the evening; my eyes, my ears, my heart, a pen in hand recorded the historic happenings.
There was no sermon for me this Rosh Hashanah; the profound wisdom of artists and activists resonated deep within my core.
For twelve years, Harry Belafonte had not sang a note – but that all changed at Many Rivers To Cross. The 89-year-old legend sat centerstage to perform “Those Three Are On My Mind” about the three young civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 for the 'audacious' act of daring to register black voters.
The singer-songwriter-actor-social activist spearheaded this festival with his organization Sankofa as a non-violent statement: we will not let this go any further. He spoke of the people (or person) running for office who threaten with racial dissension, anger, and rage.
“All that’s been said about the great progress that America is making does not articulate the price we’ve paid for that perceived progress,” he affirmed. "The nation’s moral compass is broken.” All of our challenges, crises and solutions are interconnected.
Let us wake up. Let us internalize the words of Harry Belafonte and all of the heroes who put their lives on the line for justice. Let us take on the challenge of our time. “In the waning moments of a lifetime of struggle, I pass on the baton to the next generation.” We hear you.
This IS the time. Racial divides are devastating. Hate speech is fatal. Discrimination is crushing. An election is upon is. We must mobilize to end the oppression right here, in our country, against our fellow citizens, at this moment. The current circumstances cannot and must not be acceptable to us as a people and nation.