As part of the ongoing programming for Festival Unbound 2020, Touchstone Theatre put together a socially-distanced concert, called “Songs of Hope and Resistance,” to champion “diversity, community, and freedom” in the Lehigh Valley. The Touchstone ensemble felt that the pandemic and the urgent struggle for racial justice must be marked by music. Music provides our community an opportunity to come together through art to have hard conversations about how we move forward and take action. The event took place in Touchstone’s parking lot and was catered by Molly’s Pub. Attendees sat at tables 6 feet from each other. LV Stands Up also partnered with Touchstone and were able to spread information about the importance of voting and the vote by mail option by offering registration services throughout the night. Basement Poetry’s Deidre Van Walters MC’d the evening, and set the tone between acts by reading incredibly rich, evocative poetry for the crowd that dwelled on themes of belonging and resistance.
The night started off with a jazz number by Jeremy Joseph and The Big Easy Easton Brass. Though their set was short, it included singable classics like “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Deidre Van Walters followed the band with a poem by Chester Powers, carefully selected for its motivational emphasis on what individuals can do and how they have power to act: “you can make the mountains ring…/Come on you people now…/Smile on your brother.”
The second act was solo artist Neil Grover. Grover played covers of “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and “Waiting on the World to Change,” as well as several of his own originals that address overcoming hate. Through the more well-known songs, the artist was able to engage audience participation and bridge the gap between the stage and the community. Between acts, MC Deidre Van Walters performed “Equipment” by poet Edgar Guest, leaving the audience with a sense of their own power, because with hands, feet, legs and brain, “you’re well equipped for what fight you choose.”
Camille Armstrong, the third act, absolutely stunned the audience with her innovative and fun acapella version of “Three Little Birds.” Using humming, beat boxing, and body drumming, Camille Armstrong was a dynamic stage presence. Her entire body was engaged in the making of her music, and her care-free movement and dancing echoed the lines she sang: “every little thing is gonna be alright.” Armstrong’s next song was specifically in homage to the contributions of African American musicians to global audiences. In this instance, Armstrong highlighted the community building power of call and response. As Armstrong led the crowd in a rousing call and response, she also led them through messages that are deeply tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. Armstrong and the crowd sang, ‘Everybody ought to know—what freedom is/ Everybody wanna know—what justice is.’
The next act was the Bethlehem legend Dave Fry, playing folky versions of songs like “Here Comes the Sun.” Following this, rapper Gr3ys0n shared his original music. Gr3ys0n shared his tagline—he was “a gamer not a gangster”—and performed raps that similarly tried to reject stereotypes by playing on the theme of video gaming to subvert assumptions about being a Black man. In one striking example, Gr3ys0n rapped “we hold the controllers, don’t ever think you can control us.” Much of his music asserted his own control and self-sufficiency, and coupled well with the motivating poems that the MC Deidra Van Walters had been performing all night. Gr3ys0n parted with a sincere wish that his twin boys would not have to face the challenges he faced throughout his life because of racism, and in just this small moment, the audience was reminded again why they were all there. Much of the music resonated with hope, but in this moment, the need for resistance was made clear.
After an intermission to set up a projector screen for the first showing of the Lehigh Valley Song Project music video, called “Lehigh Valley Be Free,” Deidre Van Walters read a poem by Maya Angelou, called “Human Family.” The poem spoke to the heart of the reason so many in our community desired to come together to listen to music and to discuss the hard reality of the pandemic and the fight for racial justice. Angelou begins the poem with difference, and ends the poem with human commonality: “I note the obvious differences/In the human family./Some of us are serious,/Some thrive on comedy.” This first line establishes differences in a seemingly personal way. A later stanza reveals that Angelou is also thinking about variance in humanity in terms of race. She is ultimately trying to come to terms with how difference, such as racial difference, is treated as definitive and erases what all humans have in common. For example, Angelou writes: “The variety of our skin tones/can confuse, bemuse, delight,/ brown and pink and beige and purple, tan and blue and white./…I know ten thousand women/called Jane and Mary Jane,/ but I’ve not seen any two,/ who really were the same.” To combat narratives that exclusively elevate difference, Angelou instead tries to hold difference and human similarity in tension. Angelou does this especially by ending the poem with a repeated phrase—“I note the obvious differences,/between each sort and type,/ but we are more alike, my friends,/ than we are unalike.”
Angelou’s poem, read by Van Walters, seemed to me to express the common stance that undergirded this community gathering. Deidre Van Walters final poem, after the recorded performance of Liliana Cunha, was in turn a call to action:“the world won’t get no better,/If we just let it be,/ The world won’t get no better/we gotta change it,/You and me.”
Liliana Cunha had not been able to make the rain date of Friday, July 24th, but she was able to make a video recording of her songs, such as renditions of “Blackbird” and “Lean on Me,” that were played for the audience as a digital set, before the final event, the viewing of the Lehigh Valley Song Project collaboration video. Her extensive skill with electric guitar shone.
The culminating event of the night, the viewing of the Lehigh Valley Song Project music video, captured a sense of community commitment to addressing issues like poverty and racial justice to ensure that all community members of the Lehigh Valley can truly be free. Featuring upwards of 20 local artists, the music video was a beautiful collaboration that celebrated local music and also operated as a call to action. With lyrics like “freedom from ignorance as we learn to change our fate,” the songs offered the community a succinct proclamation of the values of these artists and their visions of ways to enact social change. As one artist sang towards the end of the video: “Just like the bread we share, consciousness is rising.”
This video, and the entire Songs of Hope and Resistance event, illustrate the power of music to bring community together and to bring local attention to urgent issues, such as racial justice. Our community should do more like this to intentionally create artful and thoughtful spaces for the continuation of community conversations that matter to us.