For the thousands who attended the Many Rivers to Cross Festival just outside of Atlanta, it was a historic musical event. Entertainment Icon and activist Harry Belafonte sang for the first time in 12 years. The performance was part of the grand finale musical presentation called “Stir it Up,” which he curated especially for the event and produced by his organization, Sankofa.org
The festival featured an array of celebrities, artists, activists including Dave Matthews, Carlos Santana, Rosario Dawson Common, John Legend, Macklemore, Jesse Williams, Danny Glover, Wanda Sykes, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Rev. William Barber, Alicia Garza (Black Lives Matter), Van Jones, Rashad Robinson (Color of Change), Umi Selah (Dream Defenders), activist Tiq Milan, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Rebel Diaz, Tef Poe, Aja Monet, Las Cafeteras, Jasiri X, Repertory Theater and new artists Soul Science Lab, and Supaman.
Belafonte sang a stirring version of Pete Seeger’s “Those Three on My Mind,” a song dedicated to three slain civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (originally featured on his 1967 album “Belafonte on Campus”) who were murdered by law enforcement and the KKK in Mississippi in 1964 while trying to register black voters. After his performance his passed the mic, to symbolize the passing the torch to the next generation, to 18-year-old Randy Walton, a high-school student from BCAM in Brooklyn. Walton, a student of “Stir it Up” musical production coordinator, Brian Satz, was hand selected by Mr. Belafonte after he heard Walton’s reimagined version of “Those Three On My Mind” for 2016 highlighting recent victims who died at the hands of police including Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice and Mike Brown.
Belafonte also participated in several private talks, curated by social justice organization, Blackbird, featuring social justice leaders and celebrity panelists where he gave advice to celebrities and activists alike on tactics his generation used to push for change. An array of activists participated including, Chauncey Peltier, son of Leonard Peltier, working to secure the release of his father, who is considered one of the most unjustly convicted political prisoners, Umi Selah of the Dream Defenders who led a historic month-long sit in at the Florida State Capitol, Linda Sarsour, the founder of MPower Change, the first Muslim organizing platform, and Rashad Robinson, the Executive Director of Color of Change and Carmen Perez, the Executive Director of the Gathering for Justice. The talks were focused on how to end mass incarceration and the privatization of prisons and ensuring that everyone has the right to vote and access to the ballot rights. And with President Obama’s administration coming to an end, how to use tactics like boycotts, direct action, policy, and pressure on public officials to apply the kind of pressure that will force the hand of those in power.
“We are so grateful for all of our supporters who came out for the Many Rivers to Cross Festival and like most first time events, it wasn’t without its challenges. However, we hope fans understood the spirit of what we were trying to do; create a space in which artists, activists, thought-leaders and fans can unify and organize at this critical time in our country, and have some fun in the process,” said Gina Belafonte, co-exec Director of Sankofa.org and one of the producers of the festival.
The event also hosted a “Social Justice Village,” where over 40 organizations from around the country provided materials to festivalgoers on how to be active in their communities. Also, Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective provided emotional and physical healing opportunities for those that attended and a Hackathon (Amplify 4 Good) explored how do address social problems and challenges using technology.
The festival was sponsored by leading organizations and brands that support social justice on a national, state and local level including 1199 /SEIU, Ben & Jerry’s, Color of Change, Headcount, ProGeorgia, 9to5 Atlanta, Planned Parenthood Southeast, Campaign for Black Male Achievement, Amnesty International, AFL-CIO and the ACLU. All had activations encouraging fans to vote. Ben & Jerry’s encouraged fans to register to vote or to sign the petition to reinstate the voting rights acts by serving free scoops of their “Empower Mint.” Other partners including New Georgia Project and Hello Vote also had text to register activations on the grounds.
Also, in partnership with Amnesty International’s “Art for Amnesty,” the work of several visual artists were featured on site and some created live art while festival goers looked on. Organzied by Marvin Bing, National Director for Art for Amnesty, featured artists on site included Kristy Sandoval, Sophia Dawson, Douglas Miles, Sydnee James Genee, Brandan “B Mike” Odums and Rontherin Ratliff.
Other musical highlights from “Stir it Up” and the festival included:
- A surprise appearance by Maxwell who paid tribute to black women with his version of “This Woman’s Work” with pictures of activists like Harriett Tubman and Angela Davis featured on the video screen. Maxwell also performed a Prince Tribute singing “Nothing Compares 2 U” and said if wasn’t for Prince he wouldn’t have met Harry Belafonte who he tearfully called his “personal hero.”
- A gripping version of “Strange Fruit” by Grammy-winning Jazz Artist Dianne Reeves with images of lynched black men and women
- Dave Matthews and bandmate Tim Reynolds’ dynamic acoustic set enthralled concert goers as the sun was setting over the site. Matthews noted he had to come when called personally by Harry Belafonte to participate.
- Tour de Force Carlos Santana played an extended set performing some of his biggest hits including “Maria, Maria” and “Oye Como Va.”
- A crowd-pleasing turned sing-along of Michael’s Jackson “Man in the Mirror” with Aloe Blacc and Siedah Garrett who wrote the iconic song for Jackson.
- Singer Alice Smith brought the house down by giving new meaning to her powerful rendition of CeeLo Green song, “Fool For You.” As she sang, pictures of victims of domestic violence flashed on the screen. And after her mind-blowing version of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” had everyone in tears, Maxwell ran to her as she walked off the stage and picked her up off her feet excited about her amazing performance.
- The festival’s final series of performances began with a chilling version of the Star Spangled Banner with the somber sounds of shackles and chains heard throughout. Some concert-goers stood rapt by a video imagery of slavery and Jim Crow, while other knelt in protest to the national anthem. A choir of over 60 voices comprised of the Sounds of Blackness, The Morehouse Glee Club and choristers from a number of local Atlanta churches.
- Common and John Legend performed a stirring rendition of their Academy Award winning song GLORY. Crowd members responded with raised fists at the end of the performance
- John Legend performed a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin (41 Shots) penned in response to the 1991 murder of Amadou Diallo as Diallo’s mother looked on
- Tip “T.I.” Harris dedicated his performance to all who died for senseless violence at the hands of law enforcement
- Jo Mersa, Grandson of Bob Marley (son of Stephen Marley) sang a selection of his grandfather’s classic songs including “One Love”
- Jussie Smollet from the hit show “Empire” sang his duet “Conqueror” with Estelle and followed up with songs from the recent episode of the series where they tackled police brutality
- The families of victims of senseless violence were present at the festival including Sybrina Fulton & Jahvaris (the mother and brother of Trayvon Martin) Ron Davis (the father of Jordan Davis), Samaria Rice (mother of Tamir Rice), and Kadiatou Diallo (Amadou Diallo) and the family of Emmett Till.
- Yusef Salam, one of the Central Park 5 made an appearance and spoke on one of the panels
Founded by Belafonte in 2013, Sankofa.org has been building a platform where influential artists and grassroots leaders can work collaboratively to speak out against human rights abuse and injustice. Recently Sankofa.org partnered with Blackout for Human Rights on the successful “Justice For Flint” benefit concert, and worked with Usher on his groundbreaking “Chains” music video and racial justice campaign. Proceeds for the festival will assist with partner grassroots organizations across the country.