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Black Woodstock

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib witnesses joy and healing at Georgia’s Many Rivers festival

My phone is telling me that my GPS signal has been lost, which is not the most comforting thing to hear while driving into a thick and winding nothingness in the woods of Fulton County, Georgia, just southwest of Atlanta. I’m searching for Bouckaert Farm, the site of the first annual Many Rivers to Cross festival. The brainchild of Harry Belafonte and his daughter Gina, the two-day festival exists to, once again, connect all facets of the black oral and performance tradition with the fight for social justice. This isn't a new idea; similar concerts have been held many times over many years. But it feels, today, in this moment, especially needed. I ride here on the back of a violent year, both physically and emotionally, and one that promises more violence before it loosens its jaw and sends us spinning into another year that will perhaps be just like it. And so I felt called to Many Rivers to Cross, in some ways, not to chase some monolithic form of healing, but, perhaps, to watch a healing in others — a small glimpse of black people getting free.

As I turn around a deep curve, lined with trees, a line of police officers rests ahead, holding out their hands and signaling for me to stop. One of them, a young black man with a tattoo of Georgia on his forearm, leans in through my open window. “Say, bruh,” he starts, in a tone that both calms me and makes me wonder if his white co-workers sent him for that very reason, “you looking for the festival?” After I confirm that I am, indeed, looking and lost, he gives me directions that are easier than I expected. Before we part, I take in his presence: his face, around the same age as mine; his badge; his pants, slightly baggier than the ones his present co-workers wear; his gun, in the holster and near my eye-level. I thank him for his kindness. As I roll up the window, I tell him that I hope he gets to make it down to the festival for a bit. I tell him it seems like it could be good for us.

Chuck D is, unsurprisingly, dismantling the government on stage when I arrive. I get to the vast and sprawling farm just in time to run to the second stage for Public Enemy’s set in front of a light, but enthusiastic, crowd. Chuck D spends the set alternating between political commentary and history, with the same ground-shaking delivery he’s always had. He gripes about the absence of Flavor Flav (“Flav shoulda had his ass here... but it’s all good”) and briefly apologizes for not being as energetic on stage as he usually is (“I’ve got three shows in 24 hours, y’all. I gotta go to Tampa after this, but I promise I’ll be back here sometime soon.”) But he was also engaged, and deeply focused. A man directly in front of me, right up on the stage, stands with his young daughter on his shoulders during “Fight the Power.” When the final chorus comes, the girl, mimicking what her father has been doing for the entire song, pushes a tiny fist into the air and laughs.

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I have been making an effort to remember the names. I understand and appreciate the significance of the hashtagged name that comes after an unjust murder, but lately I have been making an effort to remember the name after it gets chewed down to the bottom of the trending topics, and after it vanishes. I imagine this has more to do with how I think, now, about engaging with fullness of the black life that I believe matters. For Philando Castile, I read about the kids he served, the neighbors who loved him. I listened to Sandra Bland’s friends and family members talk about her ferocity, her spirit, and her joy. In Columbus, I heard Ty’re King’s grandmother, Dearrea King, talk about her grandson as both flawed and beautiful, as someone who deserved so much. Instead of the stories dredged up from the darkest depths of a person's past, instead of the cell phone or body camera videos, I immerse myself in these things now. I want a taste of the full, incredible life that existed before the violence that overtook it. It makes me a little less angry, or a little less sad, to speak of the black life as a complete thing, with as many flaws as any other life, but still worthy of being loved. Thinking about this is all that has gotten me through this year.

At the festival, I notice several shirts with these names, all in the same style: the ampersand t-shirt, used first to list the members of bands, and then growing into a way to list pretty much anything. The shirts at Many Rivers all bear the names of murdered black people. Emmett. Trayvon. Jordan. Sky. Korryn. Michael. The people pass by wearing them, some laughing with friends, some posing for pictures. Some, perhaps, still as stunned with grief as so many of us have been this year. I, too, own a shirt like this. I stopped wearing it at the same time I stopped watching the videos of black people being killed by police, around the time of the Walter Scott shooting. I think all the time about how to effectively honor the dead while still being fortunate enough to be alive. I think, especially now, about what it is to be remembered only as someone who died and not someone who lived. So, yes, I have been making an effort to remember the names, but beyond this, I have been making an attempt to remember that those names once did tremendous living. Those names once sat on someone’s tongue and jumped off with impossible glee every time they were spoken.

There is a man leaning on a fence, wearing one of these shirts. His shirt is longer than most, the names tumbling down from his chest nearly to his knees. The names are not just of black men. They are also the names of black women and black trans people who have been murdered, and often neglected by the narratives of racial violence that we see crafted. He is schooling the young folks gathered around him, pointing to the names on his stomach. I make my way a bit closer, newly thankful for the educational value of the shirt I long abandoned, but also hoping that there is a moment, perhaps at the end, where he tells the young people that we do so much more than just die.

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Macklemore does something to a crowd. I have a friend who insists that, across the board, there’s the music that we really listen to, and there’s the music that we tell everyone we listen to. Macklemore is interesting in this way: I have a soft spot for a small handful of his songs, and that puts me on the generous end of nearly everyone I know. Yet, when seeing him in person, he is almost magnetic. People dance to the songs that they might snark on twitter. This quality comes out most early in his set. After opening with “Light Tunnels,” the first track from this year’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, Macklemore sighs a bit, puts his foot on a speaker, and leans over the stage. “Look, I get it,” he says, in his soft, gravelly tone. “It’s a Saturday. It’s a good 81, maybe 85 degrees out here. But I came all of the way from Seattle, Washington to do a goddamn concert. So if you’re able-bodied, please get the hell up out of those chairs.”

And, just like that, an entire audience rises without a single hint of reluctance.

Once he gets comfortable into his set, Macklemore's inclusion in the festival seems obvious. His mix of glossy optimism coupled with visible passion makes for a performance that feels touchable. An audience likes Macklemore because he knows how to make everything he does on stage feel like work, even if he’s performed the motions several times. When the opening notes of “White Privilege II” burst through the speakers, he grabs the mic stand and crouches down, breathing heavily, like he was just punched in the stomach. During “Can’t Hold Us,” he eagerly darts behind the drums and bangs away like a very focused child. During “Downtown,” he’s a whirlwind of excitement, running along the edge of the stage, jumping off of whatever he can jump on top of. The set’s sharpest moment came when he kicked into a clever and well-structured verse over the “Fuck Donald Trump” instrumental. A moment that was only dampened when, in typical Macklemore fashion, he couldn’t resist the urge to lecture the audience on exactly why Donald Trump was bad after the song had finished. Still, he managed to hit most of the right notes, in a setting that was, at least for him, fairly high stakes.

Seeing T.I. near Atlanta allows for the forgiveness of several other things that happen on the stage during the performance. His clumsy, sometimes pandering politics and his insistence on sometimes rambling are minor things when compared to the excitement in a Georgia crowd when T.I. starts to rap the first verse of “Bring ‘Em Out” and people rush down the farm’s hills to get closer to the stage and throw their hands to the sky. In an almost perfect moment, only hours after Shawty Lo had been laid to rest, T.I. led the crowd in a sing-along of the first verse of “Dey Know,” in memory of his fellow Bankhead partner, before diving directly into his own “What You Know,” sending the crowd into a midday frenzy. The sun was at its hottest, everyone pushing their body into another living body, excited to feel anything.

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The day after another video, another hashtag, or another non-indictment, my black friends talk about calling off work in the morning. “Calling in black,” they say. And we laugh. Or, we laughed once, and now we solemnly nod. This is the thing about being black in public that we return to, in these times when death is hovering lower than usual. On the days after, I only want a place where no one asks me what it is that is troubling me, or why I’m not laughing at a joke. I imagine this to be a type of heaven: a place where there is pain, yes, but no one has to answer for it unless they want to answer for it.

It is one thing to talk about the spectrum of blackness as something that is vast, something that takes on multiple forms. It is another, though, to see it in front of you and take it all in. Black children kicking a soccer ball, shooting a basketball at an imaginary rim, and playing cornhole with ice cream melting along their fingers. Black women who swayed to Dave Matthews Band and raised a fist to Rebel Diaz. This, to me, is unspectacular, but very worth placing here, in a time where presidential candidates insist on this idea of black suffering as our single experience. In a time where we are, so often, whittled down to the finest, most painful point of living, it is nourishing, fulfilling, even, to let your eyes fall upon all of the glorious living your people can do, and all of the different ways that we can do it. At Many Rivers, I play cornhole with a black woman who came here from south Florida, and we are both terrible at it, but we laugh at our small, meaningless failures for 30 minutes, and it feels like a small gift. One that, in the moment, feels like it could only happen among our people.

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The history of Chattahoochee County is rich, complex, and violent, like the history of most American land. There was, of course, the uprooting of indigenous people from a land they claimed, and lived in for years before anyone else. The Muscogee people were forcefully relocated during the removal periods of the early 1800s, many dying in the process. I thought about this on my drive in, and as I stood in the grass and watched the dust kick up from a couple of kids running by. I thought, more than anything, about how a festival rooted in social justice and solidarity would reckon with the history of the land it was being held on. And so, when Angela Davis takes the stage, it is somewhat comforting to hear her first acknowledge that the festival is on colonized land, and then insist that we must acknowledge this fact not only for the sake of history, but for the sake of our souls. It wasn’t a big thing, and it is a thing that came somewhat late in the day, with the sun setting at her back, but it was, in a way, a well-placed bit of honesty.

Angela Davis is as sharp as ever. She's as sharp as she was when I first saw her years ago, in a tiny college lecture hall. She addresses a full crowd in a way that reminds me of a grandparent, talking across the table to a single child. “I’ve been fighting for freedom a long time, you know,” she says calmly. “I went to jail once, as a matter of fact. I was in jail before a whole lot of you were even born.” The crowd bursts into a mix of laughter and cheering, and I find myself right with them, cheering, though I don’t know for what exactly. I imagine, in some ways, we were all cheering for the fact that Angela Davis is still with us, despite the odds.

Before this, in a conversation up on a hill near the artists' house, I stood on the outskirts of a conversation between artists, activists, and parents who had lost their children. Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo, took the microphone and began to speak of Guinea, her home, and how the people there resisted colonization. “We were told that if we continued to resist, we would be poor,” she explained to the crowd, leaning in closer. “And so we were a poor people. And we are still a poor people. But we have always been proud.”

In a day of musical performances, this small sentiment is the one that hung over me most, and stuck to me, unshakable, even hours after I had left. It is easy for me to forget that resistance comes with a cost that isn’t always pleasant. A cost that is sometimes death, but not only and not always. It is sometimes hunger, sometimes sleeplessness, sometimes guilt or shame. It occurs to me then, as I’m sure it did once before, that the answer is to revel in not only the things that keep us alive, but also those things that do not actively kill us, even if the two aren’t always the same.

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I want to say that joy alone is enough, but I have let that notion go, the same way I have let go of so many other small comforts in recent years: running at night, playing rap music with my windows down in neighborhoods where there are houses I’ll never be able to afford. I do get the notion — the idea that being black and living in a carefree state is, alone, a form of resistance against that which wishes you otherwise. I both advocate for that and worry about whether simply living does enough to move the needle against the machinery that would have us do otherwise.

And, still, there is something in a festival like Many Rivers that I found a value in: the ability to forget, for a moment, that there is a world outside of it that wants you to reckon with all of the complexities behind whether or not joy is enough. In that single space offered by the festival, joy was briefly enough. I imagine joy, particularly the specific type of black joy I am hinting at, as a porch that we need to be called to at the end of a hard season. If there are enough of us there, enough bodies laughing, dancing, throwing themselves against the horrors of the world, then the porch, truly, is enough.

For this, the porch need not be perfect. Many Rivers, a young festival in its first year, was certainly not perfect. The stage distribution, both geographically, and in terms of artist star power, was uneven, leading to the third stage (which was tucked in the corner) being consistently poorly attended. The social justice tent, in a similar corner near the third stage, while a vital part of the festival, also languished in obscurity for large parts of the day. The large statements coming out of the ground made for aesthetically pleasing art statements like “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “FREEDOM” made out of large block words bordering each stage. But, of course, this lead to a few uncomfortable photo shoots, and the occasional letter toppling over, the “I” in “BLACK LIVES MATTER” being the most common victim. These are, in the large scheme, very small things when compared to what the festival did. I imagine and hope that Many Rivers continue in coming years, ideally becoming both larger and more finely tuned. The mission is vital, and the people behind it are driven. It is, in many ways, the imperfect porch that we could all stand to run to at the end of a long summer.

At the center of Bouckaert Farm, there is a clear echo. It is a sweet spot for sound, the place where everything begins as distant and then barrels towards you like a train in the night, before vanishing into the sky. I sit here, in the grass, while Carlos Santana’s guitar howls into the darkness, and think about all of the ways we have kept ourselves alive this year, and, in doing so, kept the spirits of all those who couldn’t be with us anymore. How, with enough of us together, nothing fades away easily. The final note of Santana’s set draws itself out along the horizon, lingering, lingering, lingering, and finally gone.


VMAs 2017