Day one of Many Rivers to Cross had a few frustrating issues, including parking and delayed set times, but the spirit of the social justice event was ultimately not dampened.
For hours, a diverse crowd gathered for speeches, music and more in Chattahoochee Hills for day one of the two-day festival organized by Harry Belafonte’s social justice organization Sankofa.org.
Giant letters spelling “Human Rights,” “Black Lives Matter,” Justice” and “Freedom” were spread throughout the festival space, giving attendees plenty of opportunities to snap pictures for their social media accounts. As they gathered, volunteers from The New Georgia Project walked around stopping anyone who looked at least 18 years old to make sure they were registered to vote. In addition to on site voter registration, organizations such as The NAACP, Black Lives Matter Atlanta and The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations were set up in the social justice village sharing information on various topics.
Matthew McDonald and his wife Talia Taylor, both wearing “Black Lives Matter,” pins said they were mainly drawn to Many Rivers to Cross because of the message of social justice. The couple visited several informational booths Saturday, including one about Native Americans protesting a pipeline’s route under the Missouri River and another one featuring Barbie-like dolls with different complexions and curly-kinky hair.
“For me, the music is just icing on the cake,” Matthew McDonald, who is 29 and lives in Stone Mountain, said. “I am extremely concerned about the shootings [of unarmed black men]. I don’t want my daughter, who is 3, to grow up in a world that is separated. I don’t want her to grow up hating anyone. But I don’t want her to live in fear, either.”
Talia agreed, adding, “It’s nice to see not just African Americans turn out for this.”
Meanwhile, 27-year-old Manzy Byrd of Atlanta said he was there for the music, especially Dave Matthews.
“I didn’t even know about the social justice component until I got here,” he said.
Sitting close the stage, he knew he was about to enjoy Matthews at a bargain price. Two-day passes were selling for $40 on Saturday. He paid slightly more a week ago.
“I paid $120 dollars to see David Matthews the last time, so this is a great deal,” he said.
Byrd, who also enjoys going to Music Midtown, said he enjoyed the smaller, intimate feel of this festival.
-Helena Oliviero and Jewel Wicker
Here’s a look at some of the acts who performed on day one:
There was only a small crowd gathered at stage no. 2 when Public Enemy took the stage about one hour after the festival opened to the public, but that didn’t stop the band from delivering a high-energy set. Opening with “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” Professor Griff wore a durag, bulletproof vest and black pants and delivered choreographed dance moves with S1W. The group performed songs such as “Bring the Noise” and “Shut Em Down” during their 40 minute set.
Chuck D praised Harry Belafonte for the Many Rivers Festival, and also noted that the social activist helped induct Public Enemy into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. D also acknowledged Flavor Flav’s absence (“Flavor should’ve brought his [expletive] here”).
The highlight came when Chuck D praised the late actor Bill Nunn before performing “Fight the Power,” from the film “Do The Right Thing,” in which Nunn famously portrayed Radio Raheem.
The group didn’t leave the stage without offering some social commentary.
“These people are not going to stop killing us until we make them stop killing us,” Professor Griff said.
“The nerve of some people to say ‘All Lives Matter,'” he added. “We already knew that.”
Macklemore instantly commanded the stage with a fun party vibe but the lanky Seattle rapper turned serious when talking about politics and race.
After rapping a remix of an anti-Donald Trump song “[Expletive] Donald Trump” Macklemore said, “let’s take a look” at why he was singing this anti-Trump song.
“[Trump] uses fear and hatred to divide human beings,” he said. “He uses tools to motivate the masses. . . Fear and hatred can never overpower love.”
Macklemore said he doesn’t care about race, religion, sexual orientation “or what bathroom you use.”
“I choose to celebrate diversity,” he said.
Wearing a white-tank top and black jeans, Macklemore delivered a high energy, fully engaging show, switching between the light “Thrift Shop” to the more melancholy tone of “Same Love.” The performance of Macklemore’s newer song “White Privilege II” was particularly poignant and emotional. In the song, the rapper questions his role as white person and hip hop artist, unsure of his role in the struggle of African-Americans.
Rapper T.I. is known for his raps that reflect the life of a man who grew up in Bankhead and is struggling to stay on the right path in the midst of adversity. But, his set list for this festival showcased a side of the rapper that may be new to some fans.
Due to sound issues, it was hard to hear T.I. as he opened with his new song “We Will Not,” but it wasn’t hard to decipher the message as the rapper stood with one fist in the air at one point during the song. Wearing a denim jacket, jeans, a Tupac tshirt and brimmed hat, the rapper spent 40 minutes showcasing songs from his catalog that touch on social issues, including “New National Anthem” and the older cut “No Mo Talk” from his sophomore album “I’m Serious.” As his hype man stood nearby, sporting a Colin Kaepernick jersey, T.I. voiced his support for the quarterback and his protest.
From “Bring Em Out” to “Live Your Life” and “What You Know,” T.I. made sure the set list included a few hits, too. And, after running in place to the late rapper Shawty Lo’s (“my Bankhead patna”) “Dey Know,” T.I. brought out Young Dro for a performance of “We Be in Da City.” The Hustle Gang rappers closed the set with “About the Money,” sans Young Thug.
When Dave Matthews took the stage Saturday evening, the sky turned dark blue with wispy clouds, a perfect backdrop for Mathews’ soothing rhythms.
A growing crowd on the grass stood with arms in the air, swaying to the sometimes hypnotic sound of the music.
Dave Matthews recently celebrated his band’s 25th anniversary with a 46-date tour. They already announced they’re taking a break from the road in 2017. And it was like the crowd knew they needed to get their fill of live Matthews while they could. The crowd cheered with the first note of every song, delighted to hear a song they know very well. And Mattews performed many favorites including “What Would You Say,” “Crush,” and “Satellite.”
Unlike some other performances, Matthews rarely spoke about the justice and peace themes of the festival. Sitting on stool while performing, he did make this one comment early in his set: everyone deserves a bright future, not just a select few. He said his mother is far more “aggressively” political than he is, and added she was thrilled when Belafonte invited him to be part of this music festival.
British singer Estelle found American success in 2008 thanks to her enticing pop hit “American Boy” featuring Kanye West with a writing assist from John Legend. But she has yet to recapture that magic on the radio, which is a shame. Over 40 minutes, she brought a lovely blend of sultry sexiness and ebullience in both her music and her on-stage presence.
“I came here to rock out and do some self care,” she told the enthusiastic crowd. “It’s been a hard year. I won’t focus on that. I came here to build good vibes. I’m turning up! I’m in a bodysuit, dammit!”
To prove her point, she covered one of Bob Marley’s happier songs “Is This Love.” She also showed off her feminist creds with the uplifting “Thank You,” brought out Vince Mason of De La Soul for a quick duet and gleefully danced on stage with an awkwardly game dude she plucked from the crowd. She momentarily got serious, dedicating a song to moms whose kids have been killed by guns before saying, “Black lives do matter!”
She finished her night by bringing out “Empire” star Jussie Smollett for their inspiring 2014 duet “Conqueror.” She had the crowd sing along to the lines: “You might fall on your face/ But you gotta get up!”
After helping Estelle close out her set, “Empire” actor and singer Jussie Smollett stayed on stage to deliver a short fifteen-minute set. Known for his role as Jamal Lyon on the hit FOX TV show, Smollett said he “stopped shooting that little show at 2 a.m.” and hopped on a plane to attend the festival.
What he lacked vocally, he made up for with catchy songs from “Empire.” The highlights were definitely his performances of “Need Freedom,” a new song from season 3 that references the Orlando nightclub shooting, Philando Castile, and more, along with the infectious “You’re So Beautiful.”
Smollett mentioned that he was headed to Savannah after his set to visit his sister, “Underground” actress Jurnee Smollett. Jussie beamed when telling the audience that his younger sister, who is eight months pregnant, was celebrating her 30th birthday.
Carlos Santana and his incredible band were worth the price of admission alone. Over two hours, the 69-year-old showed off his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bonafides, wielding his magical flair on his guitar while interspersing upbeat talking points regarding the entire point of the festival.
“It takes courage to stand up to injustice,” he said early on. “All of them offer fear. We offer love. This is about compassion and kindness and mercy. I want to tell you all: you look beautiful!”
Indeed, if music could truly create peace, bridge differences and eliminate fear and resentment, Santana would be a beautiful place to start.
It’s the rare band where the vocalists are not the main event. Santana’s signature riffs are the blood that flows throughout each song, from the band’s first top 10 hit “Evil Ways” back in 1969 to the comeback hit “Maria Maria” three decades later. The San Francisco band’s musical influences are not just Latin and rock, but African, jazz and blues. At one point, a montage of African tribal dancers were featured on screen, almost matching the live beats of the band’s three talented percussionists.
Indeed, the concert pulsated with authenticity. “In case you haven’t noticed,” Santana said wryly at one point, “we are not lip syncing.” He’ll leave that nonsense to the likes of Britney Spears.
Note: This story was updated to reflect that Dave Matthews, not Dave Matthews Band, performed at this event.