Sitting in a basement dressing room of Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theatre on Monday (Dec. 4) night, Maxwell leaned back in a low-slung chair, flanked on one side by a small refrigerator with assorted snacks resting on top of it, and on the other side a counter lined with root ginger, a box of herbal tea, an untouched lemon next to a small carving knife, and a black baseball cap emblazoned with the multi-colored word “love.”
It was a few hours before the start of We Are Here: A Poor People’s Call for Moral Revival, with a performance lineup including Aloe Blacc, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Jasiri X, the Bronx-based Peace Poets, and North Carolinian singer Yara Allen, along with a host of faith-based leaders and activists, including the Reverend William Barber II, Reverend Liz Theoharis, the CNN contributor Van Jones, and artist Gina Belafonte, the primary organizer of the event through the social justice organization Sankofa, co-created with her father Harry Belafonte.
“When you get a phone call from ‘Mr. B,’ Harry Belafonte, it’s like a draft to consciousness,” Maxwell explains, crossing his arms across his chest and smiling broadly. “This is about paying attention and showing love for a group that always needs both regardless of who is in office — poor people. Music brings people together in ways they’re not always aware of consciously. As the son of West Indian immigrants, growing up in Brooklyn, I know this is the best place to be today.”
Exactly fifty years ago on December 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched what was to be the final movement of his life, the Poor People’s Campaign. Intended to be a multi-racial, interfaith drive for equitable jobs, affordable housing and greater assistance to the poor, its full realization was thwarted by his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee five months later. Despite the best efforts of his colleagues at the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and the larger civil rights community, it never took hold.
Today, a nascent movement to continue and implement Dr. King’s vision, now entitled the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, is being co-chaired by Reverends Harris and Barber in service to a grassroots-focused community including the Kairos Institute, Repairers of the Breach, and Campaign for Black Male Achievement among many others, with sponsorship from Ben & Jerry’s. This Poor People’s Campaign involves grassroots organizing in communities throughout the United States to engage in non-violent, civil disobedience with the aim of challenging laws on the local, state and federal level which undermine opportunities for poor people, undocumented immigrants and those threatened by police brutality to affect sustainable change.
Gina Belafonte and the Sankofa organization enlisted Maxwell and scores of other performers to support the Poor People’s Campaign through events such as We Are Here, as well as community actions, artist trainings and benefit recordings. Music is considered not just a soundtrack or backdrop to this movement, but a core driving force to connect, inspire and share the stories of people across circumstances. A concept known as “theo-musicology” provided the framework not only for We Are Here, but links an artist such as Maxwell to political, spoken word performers such as The Peace Poets to the all-female Sweet Honey in the Rock.
“Theo-musicology is studying the music of different artists through the lens of theology, looking at the sacred, the secular and the profane,” explained Yara Allen, director of cultural arts for Repairers of the Breach, based in North Carolina. The opening act on Monday evening for We Are Here, Allen noted that music has always been integral in social justice movements. “It has created the pulse, the atmosphere, and it’s critical we understand songs of the present and past, so that we can hold all of them together in one moment. In 2016, artists working with Repairers of the Breach and others in North Carolina traveled to 22 states; and then this year we visited 15 regions over 37 states. Along the way on both journeys we met many artists, speaking truth to power. We’re now creating a network for them to speak across genres and generations. We embrace everybody and simply tell them, ‘bring what you have.’”
Located in the Shaw-Howard district in Washington, blocks away from the historically black school, Howard University, the number of onlookers increasingly grew as Allen and the performers stoked the fervor of the audience through songs familiar to many social movements, from Allen’s rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” by a vigilantly respectful Aloe Blacc.
Following the performance by Allen and her bandmates from North Carolina, Reverend William Barber stepped onto center stage and in the strongest terms made plain the importance of music, and the arts, in this 21st century struggle for equality, bridging movements that have traditionally stayed siloed. “The singing that literally changes your mind,” he intoned, “is the same singing that will make you leave the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama, walk out and get beaten, walk back, bandage yourself up, sing some more and then go out again,” making reference to 1965’s Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “The poor people, the broken people, have to lead the breakthrough to justice. When the rejected come together, we can in fact change society.”
Maxwell, who closed the evening with his 1996 hit “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” went further. “We’ll see what happens, but I truly feel like we’re gonna be alright,” he noted. “What’s interesting about getting to this place from when I grew up and first started out as an artist, is seeing the greater responsibility, not just to people of color, because I would naturally be drawn to them anyway, but everyone, people in general living in poverty who don’t have the opportunity to be educated about the system and challenging it in a certain way. Sankofa and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is where my vibe is.”