The Roots, Public Enemy & More Perform at National Museum of African American History Opening

Mark Allan/Invision/AP
Flavor Flav and Chuck D of Public Enemy perform at the O2 Arena in London on June 16, 2016.

Keep calm but fight the power. Under the glow of the Washington Monument, The Roots, Public Enemy and Living Colour delivered a rousing free concert Saturday night (Sept. 24) to herald the opening of the National Museum of African American Heritage & Culture to a sprawling, exceptionally courteous crowd dotted with baby strollers and reverence.

The Freedom Sounds show punctuated a weekend of D.C. celebrations that saw a star-studded gala at the Kennedy Center, a surprise late-night parade through a downtown corridor led by Dave Grohl and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a formal dedication of the museum by President Barack Obama and performances on the mall by acts including Angelique Kidjo, Meshell Ndegeocello and Experience Unlimited.

'Musical Crossroads' at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Fusion rockers Living Colour kicked up a high-energy set that accented their tight, cohesive musicianship on hits, including “Cult of Personality,” “Funny Vibe” and “Time’s Up,” plus covers of Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues,” which will be on the band’s upcoming new album Shade, and somewhat odd choice of the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”

The centerpiece was their boisterous reboot of Notorious B.I.G. song “Who Shot Ya,” which the band recorded this summer in reaction to the rampant gun violence both from police and within the African American community. Guitarist Vernon Reid introduced the song with a sober message: “There’s a lot of bad shit going on... how many more names do we need to memorize?” and reminder that “any of us could be at the wrong place at any time because bullets don’t discriminate.”

Public Enemy’s performance was delayed a half-hour but as the clock wound down so did the sun, providing a fittingly dramatic backdrop for the prolific, prophetic hip-hop masters to bring the noise. Accompanied by the full PE camp, including Professor Griff and DJ Terminator X, Chuck D and Flavor Flav unleashed their oral history -- and some synchronized stage moves to boot.

There were condemnations and inspiration. At one point Flavor asked an obliging crowd to put up their middle finger and say “F--k Racism, f--k separatism,” then asked them to make a peace sign for the future. Chuck D instructed eyewitnesses to keep “fighting the power that don’t allow you to be a human being.”

But on this stage it was PE’s songs that spoke loudest as their tirades coursed through classics including “911 Is A Joke,” “Don’t Believe The Hype” “Can’t Truss It” -- with Chuck D noting, “You can trust the museum” -- “Shut ‘Em Down” and set closer “Fight the Power,” which the band dedicated to Radio Raheem, aka actor Bill Nunn, who played the street philosopher in the Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing.” Nunn passed away Saturday at age 63.

And there was humor. Flavor, who dedicated a striking bass solo to jazz great Stanley Clarke, whom he said was in the house, took his moment in the nation’s capital to a deliver a soliloquy asking for an invite to the White House, imploring, “All I want is to take a picture, I want to get an autograph and I want to keep the pen.”

The Roots brought the party vibe in a rollicking hour-long “late night” closer (the concert had a hard end time of 10 p.m.) that showcased their soulful hip-hop. They wove in a Philly tribute in the theme from Rocky, which band leader Questlove said was “in the name of freedom and liberty, in the name of justice” and a tone-perfect cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” which they’ve been performing for years but resonated particularly strongly on this night.

Questlove dedicated the band’s set to “anyone, anywhere who has ever lifted a camera or a voice, who’s ever lifted a fist or a flag, or taken a knee against social injustice.”

His remarks seemed to reflect the spirit of the night -- that if those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, then the new museum’s testimony provides a beacon of hope for the future.


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