Harry Belafonte’s Many Rivers to Cross festival just might be the “Woodstock” of social justice.
The two-day music, arts and justice festival, hosted by the legendary artist-activist and his daughter Gina Belafonte through Sankofa.org, an organization Mr. B, 89, founded in 2013, took place over the weekend just outside of Atlanta, and every performer, celebrity, speaker and cultural worker was united under a similar sentiment: progressive social change is possible and coming.
The multi-generational festival was as much a dedication to justice as it was a celebration of the beauty and resistance of the country’s disenfranchised.
Black and brown solidarity was particularly heavy, with political commentator and activist Van Jones telling the thousands that gathered at the 8,000-acre Bouckaert Horse Ranch in Fairburn, Ga., “if the DREAMers and Black Lives Matter got together and had their own Woodstock, it might feel like this.”
He wasn’t exaggerating, either.
The festival kicked off Saturday with Carmen Perez, a Chicana criminal justice activist, hitting one of the event’s three stages to introduce the two-day gathering to guests. After her was a star-studded line-up that included artists like Public Enemy, Las Cafeteras, Macklemore, T.I., Rebel Diaz, Estelle, the Dave Matthews Band and Carlos Santana, among many more.
For Rodrigo and Gonzalo Venegas, the Chicago-raised, Bronx-living Chilean brothers behind the political hip-hop duo Rebel Diaz, the invitation from Belafonte was one they couldn’t pass up.
“This is a legacy that we continue, you know what I mean, from Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte to Bob Marley to Chuck D. … We’ve always been involved in political work on the ground level, on the streets, so it’s important for us to come and share our messages,” they told us.
Rodrigo, who was sporting a “Free Ramsey Orta” shirt, in reference to the Staten Island Puerto Rican man who filmed the police death of Eric Garner, continued: “Whenever culture comes from communities that live conditions of oppression, 99 percent of the time a lot of the stories that are going to come out are going to be stories of resistance and stories of survival. So, for us, it’s important to share the stage with artists who are sharing our truths, sharing our stories. It’s our job as cultural workers to make ideas of revolution irresistible.”
On another stage, Atlanta-based rapper T.I. performed a mix of new conscious songs like “War Zone,” which included the chant “Hands up. Can’t breathe,” along with older hits like “Live Your Life.”
Between sets, the rapper, who announced his support of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who's protesting the national anthem in light of rampant police violence against Black men and women, highlighted discrepancies in the way the state treats Black bodies versus white ones.
“There’s supposed to be an equal respect for life and liberty in this country, and if that ain’t the case, then the words on the Constitution are just printed on a little bullshit piece of paper,” he said to cheers.
For Estelle, the festival was a time for self-care.
“It’s been a hard year,” the British singer told the crowd. “I’m going to focus on bringing love and pride.”
With popular tunes "Come Over" and "American Boy," she uplifted the audience, even bringing many to laughter after asking a gentleman up to the stage to offer him a dance lesson.
Before leaving, the singer shared a performance of “Conqueror” with Empire’s Jussie Smollett, who, like Estelle, had those gathered feeling ravishing – even proclaiming that “Black women are beautiful” before going into his hit “You’re so Beautiful.”
Off the stages, 40 nonprofit organizations engaged with festivalgoers, while a handful of artists with Amnesty International painted the movement on 6-foot by 8-foot canvases.
Among them, Kristy Sandoval, a Los Angeles-based Chicana who was working on a piece of the peaceful protests of the Zapatistas.
“We’re bringing awareness and consciousness through live art, bringing the visual art to the festival,” Sandoval told us. “I’ve gotten a lot of questions, which is what I wanted because a lot of people don’t know about the Zapatistas, so it’s an opportunity to educate and raise consciousness.”
Later in the evening, guitar legend Santana brought in Saturday’s largest audience.
With chart-toppers like "Maria Maria" and "Corazon Espinado," the Mexican musician had hundreds of people on their feet and shaking their hips. But the long-time activist also dropped gems between his sets, sparking applause when he alluded to the Black Panthers, who he previously held concerts with, and laughter after saying he wanted to smoke weed.
“Free the people. Compassion for the people. Elevate the people,” Santana asserted.
Sunday’s revels attracted even more people. Throughout the day, stars like Wanda Sykes, Chris Tucker, Rosario Dawson and Danny Glover introduced performances from Common, John Legend, Maxwell and more. Even Belafonte, who hadn’t held a public show since he had a stroke 12 years ago, performed a new song, “Those Three Are on My Mind,” which commemorated three civil rights activists, Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered in 1964 for registering Black Mississippians to vote.
Before leaving the stage, Mr. B dropped some truth in hopes of keeping festivalgoers’ fire enflamed beyond the weekend.
“All that’s been said about the great progress that America is making does not articulate the price we’ve paid for that perceived progress,” he said. “Sadly, the enemy does not sleep. The nation’s moral compass is broken.”