Following two days of music and social activism, the Many Rivers to Cross Festival closed with a star-studded set that included performances from John Legend, Common, Maxwell, Diane Reeves and Harry Belafonte.
Belafonte was named in almost every set during the festival, which was put together by his organization sankofa.org, but attendees probably didn’t expect the 89-year-old artist and social activist to sing.
According to Belafonte, it was his first time performing in a public setting since he had a stroke over a decade ago.
Day two of the Many Rivers to Cross festival wasn’t without its issues – hardly anything on the main stage went according to the publicized schedule and one performer delivered a vulgar set that seemed intended for another audience entirely – but Belafonte’s appearance alone was enough to make traveling to Chattahoochee Hills and inhaling dirt for hours worthwhile.
Here’s a look at some of the artists who performed during the final day of the Many Rivers to Cross Festival:
Once Common took the stage, he immediately set the tone with one simple command: “Black people unite and let’s get down!”
Minutes into his set, he cut the beat for a three-minute freestyle covering everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to systemic racism and a galaxy far, far away.
Throughout his show, the Chicago native showed love and respect for emcees from all different cities, including De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, A Tribe Called Quest and Ice Cube.
Common’s set musically went through distinct phases as he shifted from activism to rowdy party tracks such as “Get Em High” and “I Used to Love H.E.R.” He finished his set focusing on love and togetherness, epitomized by his performance of the songs “Love Star” and “The Light.”
When Aloe Blacc took the stage, his appearance let fans know exactly what to expect. Dressed up in a grey suit and fedora combo, Blacc oozed suave sophistication with a slight funk edge.
Blacc’s main stage set only consisted of three songs: “Lift Your Spirit,” “The Man” and “You Make Me Smile.” And while all three were entertaining crowd-pleasers, there are many other songs in Blacc’s repertoire that lend themselves to the theme of the festival that were omitted – “Love Is The Answer” and “I Need A Dollar” immediately come to mind.
Nonetheless, Blacc squeezed as much music as he could into the time he was given. He didn’t give long political or activist speeches like many other acts chose to do. Every once in a while he would mention the social justice his performance was supporting, but he seemed more interested in having a good time on stage and letting the music do the talking for him.
Ty Dolla $ign
Perhaps the most perplexing performer of the day was California singer Ty Dolla $ign. Shortly before the festival’s grand finale, which stressed the importance of the festival’s social justice theme, the singer delivered a set that didn’t seem to take into account the varying ages of the festival crowd or the event’s purpose.
In fact, Ty Dolla $ign’s set seemed more like it was a chance for the singer to promote his new album, “Campaign,” than for him to attach himself to social issues. From “Zaddy” (“Zaddy gon’ pull up and he gone [expletive] you all night”) to “Toot It and Boot It,” a song the singer says he produced for rapper YG at his grandmother’s house, an auto tuned Ty Dolla $ign only made a few references to social issues and the upcoming election.
“I’m definitely voting and you already know who it’s not going to be for,” he said. “[Expletive] that guy.
The singer brought out Atlanta rapper B.o.B for a performance of “Paranoid” before taking off his shirt and making some provocative gestures to his version of The Weeknd’s “Or Nah,” which references Nelly’s infamous “Tip Drill” video.
He closed his set by telling the audience to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t win the presidential election.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by other artists throughout the night. Still, Ty Dolla $ign’s set list certainly stuck out at the festival due to its vulgar language and sexual content.
Comedian Wanda Sykes, Danny Glover and actor Michael K. Williams were among the first celebrities to grace the stage for the festival’s three hour finale. Sykes and Glover read from a teleprompter about mass incarceration, police brutality and more, but it was Williams’ off the cuff speech that captured the audience. Williams spoke of struggling with drug addiction and being a “part of the problem,” before telling the audience that their ancestors have already fought to secure all of their human rights.
What followed was a flurry of artists performing original songs and moving covers.
Common returned to the stage with John Legend to perform “Glory,” before Legend, wearing jeans and a black jacket with gold embellishments, performed Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin.” Images of Trayvon Martin were displayed on a giant screen behind Legend during the song. In the crowd, two lanterns were released into the air.
Alice Smith‘s curls bounced as she delivered a soulful rendition of CeeLo’s “Fool For You” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Mali Music sang and rapped songs such as a vibrant cover of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama.” Aloe Blacc returned to cover Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” with the woman responsible for writing the song (Siedah Garrett) before delivering the hits (“Wake Me Up” and “I Need a Dollar”) that were missing in his earlier set. And, actress Rosario Dawson made a brief appearance to channel the late Maya Angelou (“Good done anywhere is good done everywhere.”).
The highlight of the festival came hours into the finale when Harry Belafonte appeared on the stage, removed his black ball cap and sat on a stool to sing “Those Three Are on My Mind,” an emotional song about the 1964 murders of three Mississippi civil rights workers. Where many of the other celebrities seemed tied to the teleprompter, Belafonte wasn’t afraid to deviate from the script.
According to him, this performance was his first time singing publicly since he had a stroke more than a decade ago.
“It’s been 12 years since I stood on a stage somewhere in the world,” he said.
Before leaving the stage, Belafonte talked about the importance of the Many Rivers to Cross Festival.
“We have people running for office who threaten us with racial dissension, anger and rage,” he said. “This is a small way for us to nonviolently say we will not let this go any further.”
After Belafonte’s appearance, everything else seemed anti-climactic – until Maxwell showed up at about 10:40 p.m. The heartthrob neo-soul singer was a surprise and the waning crowd perked up. Hundreds of women rushed the stage when he appeared, dressed in a tux. Maxwell got teary eyed explaining that Belafonte was his idol. “I grew up wishing I could be that cool!” he said. He said he got to meet both Belafonte and Prince a month before Prince passed. He was so honored to talk music with both of them. ‘If it were not for Prince, I would not be on this stage with Harry Belafonte,” he said. In honor of Prince, he sang a cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” with changed lyrics, opening with “It’s been seven hours and 143 days since you took your music away.”
The three-hour event concluded with Diane Reeves crooning an uplifting “America the Beautiful.”
Fans who stuck around until the end were thrilled by both Belafonte singing and Maxwell showing up.
Julianne Spencer of Newnan said she was waiting for Jamie Foxx to show up. (He was advertised but didn’t appear.). “But I’m satisfied because we got Maxwell,” she said. The entire festival, she added, “was well worth it.”
Her sister Roxanne said they purchased last-second tickets for the bargain-basement price of $40 for two days. She was annoyed by how people online were complaining about the traffic.
“It really wasn’t that bad,” Julianne said.
Karen Lee of Atlanta loved Carlos Santana and Estelle Saturday and thought Alice Smith’s performance Sunday night “took the show to another level, an incredible level. Harry Belafonte’s organization was incredible putting this together.”
Carol Brown-Rye, who lives in Grant Park, said she felt close to Belafonte given they are both Jamaican. “To see his journey come full circle has been amazing,” she said. She was also mesmerized by Santana Saturday night. She said the venue was far away but she enjoyed the property once she got there.
“It was amazing, uplifting. It was emotional, too,” said Brenda Wakefield, a Decatur resident who loved Maxwell as well. “We probably witnessed history with Harry Belafonte. That probably will never happen again. And he was so eloquent at . We were thrilled to be in the presence of history.”
She said she has a pact with her daughter and sister: never depart concerts early: “You stay to the end. We like to be the last ones leaving.”
-J.W. and Rodney Ho