Music Features

Athens in Harmony Returns to Break Down Barriers Through Song

Athens in Harmony in 2020. Credit: Linda Macbeth.

Working to bring disparate music scenes closer together, Athens in Harmony is a social and sonic experiment that demonstrates how positive change can happen through song. Musicians representing various genres—gospel, R&B, soul, hip hop, rock, folk, goth and even klezmer—are paired into duos across perceived barriers of race and culture, and assigned the challenge of performing together on stage. Back for the event’s sixth year following a pandemic-induced break, producer Pat Priest and Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement founders Mokah Jasmine Johnson and Knowa Johnson are ready for a new round of musical matchmaking. 

“The impact I’m proudest of is the relationships built between people who might otherwise never have met,” says Priest. “I’ve thought in the past of our town’s music scenes—Black and white—as two separate turntables. Finally—and other people in town have been working to make this happen, too—there is more cross-fertilization and new friendships, too.”

After whittling down a list of musicians to invite each year, the event’s producers do a blind draw—typically across differences of race or ethnicity—and occasionally shuffle the arrangements to better the odds of complementary talents and personalities. Each duo then prepares a single song to showcase the melding of their distinctive styles. 

Athens in Harmony challenges musicians to step outside of their comfort zones, both socially and creatively. Most importantly, the event creates a unique opportunity for pairs to bond over a shared experience and support each other’s endeavors into the future. 

In previous years, many duos have maintained friendships, and some have even continued to collaborate together in various capacities. These new friendships can serve as bridges between seemingly separate scenes, helping to make the larger music community more integrated and less fragmented by social circles. Events with multiple genres represented can in turn broaden audience members’ musical preferences. 

This year, Mokah Johnson will co-host with David Bradley, president and CEO of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, while actress Lisa Mende emcees. Jazmin Janay, an R&B singer and actress who recently appeared on “The Jennifer Hudson Show,” will partner with Tommy Jordan, the longtime director of the North Georgia Folk Festival and half of the rootsy duo MrJordanMrTonks. Hip-hop artist Nony1 will collaborate with Bart King, a pianist, children’s book author and organizer of the Forest Heights Blueberry Festival. John Tsao, a singer in the Athens Master Chorale, will join Debra Brenner, a former assistant director of UGA’s Center for Disability Services who will perform using sign language.

“This year it’s going to be especially fun to hear the goth-pop singer Dusty Gannon of Vision Video performing ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ with Jalen Stroud of the great family Splitz Band,” says Priest. “And I’m looking forward to seeing Rabbi Eric Linder perform with the soul and R&B singer IAMTIKICA. But I’m also really excited about a special trio—Gracie Huffman of lighthearted with gospel greats Dierdra Stroud and Marco Hull—and the quartet of Adam Poulin, Knowa Johnson, a South African student named Freedom Zungu, and my husband Neal. They’re going to rock Jon Batiste’s joyous song ‘Freedom.’” 

The program consists of a total of 10 pairs, each of which will be accompanied by a backing band led by Michael Wegner. The full lineup also includes Ron Da Don and Laura Valentine, Heli Montgomery Dunn and Jaclyn Brown, Tracy Brown and Sherry Joyce, Shirlepa Howard and Alys Willman (Athens Mountain Singers), and Katie Collins and Knowa Johnson (Aquatic Soul Band). 

Throughout the evening, participants will have the opportunity to share personal stories about times they’ve observed or directly experienced racism. As per tradition, the night will culminate with a finale performance of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” this year spotlighting guest hip-hop artists Mack2Tone and P.O. the Priceless One. 

“I think what’s hard to describe is the goodwill generated—the reminder that there are so many good people who want to reach across differences and work to end discrimination in its many forms,” Priest said.

Proceeds from Athens in Harmony will help support AADM youth programs that offer mentorships, internships and other enrichment opportunities. So far this year, the AADM has hosted two dozen students in a Teen Social Justice Apprenticeship & Travel Program, and additionally mentored 10 students through the End School to Prison Pipeline Program. Later this month, Mokah will lead My Black is Beautiful, a four-week empowerment and self-confidence building workshop. 

WHO: Athens in Harmony
WHEN: Sunday, Sept. 10, 7 p.m.
WHERE: The Foundry