Star-studded concert special less rock, more social action
LOS ANGELES — The idea wasn’t unusual: Gather a bunch of rock, pop, R&B, country and hip-hop stars for a concert highlighting an important cause — in this case, racial strife across the U.S.
The response from the music community, however, was anything but business as usual.
“I didn’t think quite honestly we could afford another Kumbaya moment,” said Grammy-winning songwriter, singer and producer Pharrell Williams about the call he got to participate in a concert for unity. “That’s not where the world is right now. The world needs action.”
The push-back by Williams and several of his peers resulted in a concert and TV special that signals an evolution in the long history of pop music benefit concerts — from a star-studded spotlight on a single issue to a serious effort to explore its roots and search for answers.
“I was a little skeptical of the concert,” popR&B singer-songwriter John Legend told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not like artists of different races don’t sing together. We do that at all sorts of events… It’s not enough just to come together and sing… For me it was really important to go deeper.”
Those sentiments were echoed by other participants in back-to-back specials that aired Friday night on all six cable channels of A&E Networks: the two-hour Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America, filmed Wednesday night in Los Angeles, and the hour-long Shining a Light: Conversations on Race in America.
Organizers and participants in Shining a Light travelled to Charleston, S.C.; Ferguson, Mo.; and Baltimore. They filmed musical performances from epicentres of violent episodes and then launched public dialogues in those communities aimed at healing wounds and sparking cross- cultural understanding.
The first indication that something different was up at Wednesday’s taping of the concert portion was that the standard all-hands-on-deck musical number came not at the end but at the beginning.
Bruce Springsteen, joined by Legend and Tom Morello, performed his 2001 song American Skin (41 Shots), which he wrote in response to the 1999 death of Guinea immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was killed by police in New York City. The choir behind them included Williams, Sting, Smokey Robinson, the Zac Brown Band, Pink, Ed Sheeran, Sia, Miguel, Aloe Blacc, Eric Church, Jamie Foxx, Tori Kelly, Jill Scott, Nick Jonas and Big Sean.
“The feeling among the musicians was that ideas that may have worked well in the 1960s and ’70s aren’t enough today,” said Ken Ehrlich, veteran producer of the annual Grammy Awards telecast who produced the concert special.
Teams were dispatched to Ferguson, Charleston and Baltimore to engage with survivors, family members and friends of victims of violence, as well as with members of law enforcement, local governments and other community leaders to initiate what Legend referred to as “difficult conversations” about matters of race in the U.S. in 2015.
“I went to Ferguson, and to St. Louis, to talk to a range of people,” said the native of Springfield, Ohio.
Williams was part of the crew that went to Charleston, where he sang his song Freedom in the Emanuel AME Church. After touring the slave quarters on a former plantation, Williams said during his filmed segment that the experience unnerved him.
A&E’s promo clip for the program began, “Racism is real ... and we need to have a conversation about it.”
Above, Bruce Springsteen (left) and John Legend perform at Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Left, Sia raised her voice, even though no one could see her face.