Photo Credit: Abigail Sherrod
Squallé and Chris McKay shake hands after performing at the second Athens in Harmony concert.
Sometimes it seems that blacks and whites in Athens live in parallel universes, never the twain shall meet. Even our celebrated music scene is as segregated as our neighborhoods, churches and friendship networks, though so many of us wish we could meaningfully unite across the divide.
A couple of years ago, I attended a rally at City Hall where a diverse group gathered to protest yet another not-guilty verdict against a police officer who had killed a black citizen somewhere in the United States.
People were bristling with anger, and I was impressed when our new police chief, Scott Freeman, a white man, moved through the crowd to introduce himself and another officer to the organizer, Mokah Johnson, co-founder of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. They were all cordial but seemed wary of each other.
I saw the tension, felt the shared despair in the crowd and thought: Now is the time. I had been meaning to organize an event that would pair some of the best black musicians in town with superb white performers to sing duets, but some other project always came to the fore instead. I contacted Mokah and her husband Knowa, who co-founded the Athens Hip Hop Awards, and we pulled together a concert we called Athens in Harmony. Aside from all the terrific duets and the fun singalong at the end to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” the best part was that Mokah and the police chief were the spirited emcees of the show. Those two are solid gold together!
I was worried about one thing at the outset: Could we pair rappers with singer-songwriter types for some of the duos? For example, we had the dynamite Elite tha Showstoppa performing with chanteuse Caroline Aiken, rapper Squallé with rocker Chris McKay, and Blacknerdninja rapping with Bain Mattox, who sings and writes his own songs.
Two reviews of the results came immediately after the concert from my older sisters, in their 60s, who had driven to Athens for the show. They enthused: “That Stop the Show guy and other rappers were fabulous! Wow!” And they had been showstoppers!
But I’ll never forget the other pairings, too. For example, Monique Osorio, a young student at the UGA School of Music, belted out a gospel song with local icon Rosa Thurmond; R&B vocalist Repunza sang “Where is the Love” with Jay Gonzalez of Drive-By Truckers; and high-voltage singer Rev. Conner Tribble performed with the famed spoken-word artist Celest Ngeve. Each song was beautiful and moving; many were protest songs from the ’60s and still relevant today. Something magical had happened, and when it was over, no one wanted to leave.
The next Athens in Harmony should be as memorable and probably magical, too, with another stellar lineup that includes rapper Lingua Franca; Mike Mantione of Five Eight; Laura Carter of Elf Power; gospel singers Steve Almond, Keisha Burgess, Shirlepa Howard-Litwin and Jaclyn Brown; Andrea DeMarcus of Cicada Rhythm; singers Jamon Holt, Seth Hendershot, Dave Marr, Dodd Ferrelle, A.T. Martin and Amanda Kapousouz; Flynne Collins of Nihilist Cheerleader; hip-hop artists Kaliko and Minnie Lea; and blues musician Rick Fowler.
My husband Neal and Knowa are fine singers, too, but we didn’t want to put them in the first show, because it might smack of nepotism. But this year they’ll sing—and dance to!—a classic song by the Temptations.
The concert—with a strong backing band led by Michael Wegner—will be at the Foundry on the Sunday of the Martin Luther King holiday (Jan. 14 at 7 p.m.). And Chief Freeman and Mokah Johnson will again emcee. Tickets are $10 in advance (at thefoundryathens.com) and $15 at the door.
At the last show, we asked some of the performers about their first inkling of racism in the world. Folk singer Maggie Hunter described how a relative she loved snapped off the TV when Maggie wanted to watch the show “Julia,” which featured a black actress in the title role. Maggie wept in disbelief that her relative had used a word to describe the actress that Maggie knew even as a child was hateful and wrong. And the rapper Squallé, aka Torrance Wilcher, who has an engineering degree, mentioned that when his answers on a math test matched that of a white boy’s, the other kid got away with cheating because he said that Wilcher had copied him.
I hope people will join us for the next Athens in Harmony to hear each other across the color line while celebrating the robust talent in Athens. The concert will raise funds for the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, which works to prevent discrimination in downtown bars and elsewhere and puts on the MLK Day parade and other events for the holiday that marks King’s many accomplishments. And we want to again show our concern for the rights and safety of blacks and other minorities and for the safety of our police force.
I think attendees will find the show a tonic against despair about all the injustices here and elsewhere in the world, as we share good times, great music and fellowship. We need to come together at such events to remind ourselves of all the good people in the world and all the good will that we need to magnify into good deeds, good policies and good lives for everyone.