I biked up to Helen Gillet's concert at the St. Louis Cathedral tonight, not expecting to walk in on a live opening performance of "A Change Is Gonna Come," sung by approximately 20 individuals dispersed throughout the pews.
The act - staged similarly to October's Requiem for Mike Brown in a St. Louis, Missouri concert hall - seemed to surprise most attendees, including the Louisiana Tourism Bureau host, who stood smiling blankly on the altar throughout. Indeed, the group of singer-activists had planted themselves in the crowd in order to conduct a political intervention to the otherwise blandly styled "Christmas in New Orleans" event series.
"Know what else is happening in New Orleans?" the group asked through song: Black people are getting killed by police.
I didn't remember all the lyrics to Sam Cooke's civil rights classic, but I stood near a friend whom I'd spotted, and chimed in during the chorus:
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come
Oh yes it will
The 95% white audience didn't seem to know what to do. Some people clapped, not so much in appreciation as polite communication to the singers to wrap up and get out. I wondered why more people didn't stand in solidarity with the message, which was to confront passivity in the face of horrendous social violence.
I was glad when a singer remained standing during the applause and the host's meek microphone-based attempts to get the concert underway. She - and we - began to shout "Black lives matter!" as most of the activists filed out of the Cathedral.
The concert proceeded with nary a mention of the opening act, even when Ms. Gillet referenced Pete Seeger and Joan Baez as musical inspirations for one of her French folk song renditions.
I suppose I could have expected such a muted response - after all, Christmas time unfortunately functions as the season of consumerist banality - but I also embrace feeling charged by such a bold interruption to the status quo. Yes, Black lives matter, and yes we should sing and shout that at all times. It is always appropriate to affirm the value of Black lives.
I recognized several Jewish people in the singing group, and I was so proud. The Jewish collective conscience demands solidarity with people of color, and anyone who is also unjustly targeted for violence in our society. We Jews must stand up for Black lives: We must stand up, we must confront injustice, and we must sing about the change we hope to make in the world.
Merry Christmas, New Orleans. Are we able to carry on?