By Mesfin Fekadu
NEW YORK — When Pharrell Williams signed up to perform at an all-star concert highlighting race relations in America, the multi-layered musician didn’t want to “have a kumbaya type-of-moment” onstage with his fellow performers, as he put it.
“That’s not what these communities need. They don’t need another song, they need action,” Williams said in an interview Monday. “And if that’s accompanied by music, that’s a beautiful thing.”
What came from that are two specials airing on A&E on Friday. The two-hour “Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America” – which includes Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Ed Sheeran, Sia and John Legend – will tape Wednesday at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It will air at 8 PM Eastern on Friday.
“Shining a Light: Conversations on Race in America,” a one-hour special, will follow at 10 p.m. Eastern and includes conversations about racial inequality and violence in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
Williams visited and taped a performance earlier this month at the South Carolina church where nine black parishioners were shot and killed on June 17.
“We feel like for the first time a major network was very generous and (was) open to the concept of there being a platform for people in communities to voice their opinions and talk about their stories,” said Williams, who was joined by Soledad O’Brien in Charleston, South Carolina. “Even if they agree or disagree, they have a platform to do it in an organized way.”
Alicia Keys performed in Baltimore, where protests and rioting followed in April after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died a week after he was injured in police custody. Legend visited the area where 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed last year in Ferguson and filmed a performance in St. Louis.
“I think A&E … and everybody wanted to do the show because they were looking at a clear groundswell of activism around Black Lives Matter, a clear heightened of awareness of the issue of the relationships between the black community and the police, and seeing so much unrest in the black community over the past couple years. They wanted to do something to bring people together,” Legend said Monday.
“My thought was that if we’re going to bring people together, we need to have real discussions and talk about the real pain and distrust that has been deeply rooted in the American culture and American history.”
Springsteen will perform “American Skin (41 Shots)” at Wednesday’s concert, while Sheeran will sing the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” will be performed by Sia, and Legend will duet with Pink on Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”
R&B newcomer Andra Day will sing her song “Rise Up” with Nick Jonas, while Rhiannon Giddens will perform “Cry No More.”
“All these songs fit, and it doesn’t make a difference what generation they’re from, they’re all songs of conscience and they’re all done by artists who have a conscience,” executive producer Ken Ehrlich said.
Sting, Tom Morello, Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, Jamie Foxx, Tori Kelly, Miguel, Pink, Jill Scott, Aloe Blacc and Big Sean will also perform. Presenters include Morgan Freeman, Nicki Minaj, George Lopez, LL Cool J, Mario Lopez and former NFL players Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner.
Friday’s two-hour concert special on A&E will also air on HISTORY, Lifetime, H2, LMN and FYI, as well as on more than 130 iHeartMedia broadcast radio stations and AOL. The hour-long conversation on race following the concert will just air on A&E.
A&E said tickets for the concert sold out in three hours and raised more than $150,000 for the Fund for Progress on Race in America via The United Way Worldwide.
“I think musicians have a special role in society and artists have a special role,” Legend said. “I was with Harry Belafonte this weekend and he admonished us that artists are gatekeepers of the truth and we have a special ability to influence the culture.”