Revolutionary Worker #892, February 2, 1997
As the audience sits in anticipation, jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson begins her set during the benefit for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Accompanied by a low bass beat and a mournful blues guitar, she starts with a moving version of Strange Fruit, the song made famous by Billie Holliday:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Wilson performs three other pieces--wrapping it up with a love song with the theme "I will fight for you," which she ends by throwing both arms in the air and crying out, "Free Mumia!" The powerful performance captures the mood and spirit of the whole event--a fierce determination to see that Mumia is freed from unjust imprisonment and death sentence.
A major cultural benefit for the legal defense fund of revolutionary political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal took place on January 20. The venue was the Aaron Davis Hall at the City University of New York. And the featured performer was Cassandra Wilson, whose latest album New Moon Daughter is included in many music critics' list of top 10 albums of 1996. Also appearing on the stage were about 50 poets who performed as a group and gave solo readings. Close to 500 people attended the evening of poetry and music.
A libation (an African blessing) performed by Babalawo Carlos Collazo began things off. Mumia's own voice then filled the room, as an audio tape of one of his prison commentaries was played. Camille Yarbrough--professor at the City College Black Studies Department, author and WLIB talk show host--warmly welcomed the audience with words of love for Mumia.
Pam Africa read one of Mumia's favorite poems from his new book Death Blossoms. Pam, coordinator of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia and a member of the MOVE organization, spoke about the striking evidence that has been uncovered proving that Mumia has been railroaded. She urged people in the audience to unite with many others to step up the battle to free Mumia. And she called on people to come to an important demo on January 27 in Philadelphia, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will be in session: "We are placing a human chain around city hall, and we're going to have a press conference at 12 o'clock. It's very important that each and every last one of you be there....We have got to send the Supreme Court a very loud message that we're not gonna stand for it!"
As the lights dimmed, the curtain rose on about 50 poets dressed in black. They were the "Wordchestra"--conceived for this program and led by Felipe Luciano, a founding member of the Young Lords Party and an original member of The Last Poets. The group performed poems that its members had written together, interspersed with solo performances from individual poets.
Sonia Sanchez transported the audience back in time onto a slave ship as she read "Middle Passage," capturing the suffering of the slaves and their determination to survive the many horrors. In a melodic finale, Sanchez sang of the refusal of the slaves to let the oppressors chain their spirit: "I am, I live, I live, live, live, live, live, live."
Amiri Baraka's poem, "The Faust Negro That Sells His Soul to the Devil for That Much," ridiculed and mocked Black figures who have made it into powerful positions, such as Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas, and who are part of the system that enforces oppression on Black people. The whole Wordchestra performed Danny Shot's "Who's to Blame?"--a satire on how the "blame" for the decline of U.S. society is placed on Blacks, Jews, the '60s, workers and others.
Nuyorican poet Sandra Maria Esteves' "Weaving" ended with a moving passage that riveted the audience with its vision: "Mumia must be free! See Mumia free, see Mumia dancing, see Mumia free, ay, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi. See Mumia dancing on the mountain, walking by the river with his children dreaming. See Mumia free, dancing in the light, see Mumia free, ay, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, dancing in the light." Black poet and activist Asha Bandele paid a tribute to Black feminist writer Audre Lorde.
Luis Reyes Rivera tied together the history of oppression and resistance of Black and Latino people as he spoke of the "mambo kings and bebop monarchs" coming together in an "Afro-Cuban suite." Palestinian poet Suhier Hammad read a piece in which she spoke to a lover, as they lay on bed, of her inability to put out of her mind the struggle of the people of the world--and ended with a call to her lover to get up and join the struggle for liberation.
Amina Baraka performed "Dirge for the Lynched," which appears in the poetry anthology In Defense of Mumia. The poem ends with:
when they come, the Bourgeoisie
blowing their bugle
to fight their wars
let's take their confederate flag
& burn it from a tree
and when they say we're not Patriotic
let's remind them
of ALL the BLACK BODIES
hanging from AMERICA'S trees.
Free all political prisoners and death to the death penalty!
Other poets giving individual performances included Tony Medina, Halim Suliman, Felipe Luciano and two young poets (whose names were not announced) who did a short rap. After an intermission, Dan Williams, managing partner of Moore & Williams and a member of Mumia's legal team, gave an update on the case.
The performances closed with Cassandra Wilson and her band. And closing remarks were made by Safiya Bukhari and Herman Ferguson of the Coalition to Free Mumia.
In the lobby of Aaron Davis Hall, people who have been deeply involved in the struggle to free Mumia for the past few years greeted each other and mixed with many new faces who had come to the benefit concert. The International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia passed out information about Mumia's case and the MOVE newspaper First Day. Members of Refuse & Resist! distributed hundreds of black ribbons with gold print that read "Free Mumia!"
Many beautiful art works were displayed, some done in honor of Mumia. One table featured powerful pieces done by other political prisoners in the U.S. And the event program included statements from political prisoners Sundiata Acoli, Merle Austin Africa, Phil Africa and others.
The benefit was the product of the efforts of many groups and individuals. It was organized by the New York Coalition to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and produced by Karen Taylor. In addition to the performers, the program mentioned others who lent their support in various ways: journalist Herb Boyd; attorney Johnnie Cochran; director Spike Lee; Michael and Robert Meeropol, children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; Susan L. Taylor, editor-in-chief of Essence magazine; and many other activists and attorneys.
Groups and individuals who showed their support with ads in the event program included director John Edginton and co-producer Sarah Teale of the HBO documentary "Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case of Reasonable Doubt?"; New African Liberation Front; National Conference of Black Lawyers; Malcolm X Commemoration Committee; The Rosenberg Fund for Children; Attorneys Karen Ranucci and Michael Ratner; Camp Kinderland; and the Center for Constitutional Rights' William Moses Kunstler Fund.
The evening of poetry and jazz for Mumia was a great success! The artists, poets and musicians brought to life the powerful spirit of resistance of the oppressed. The event captured the strength of the movement for Mumia that has been forged. And it points to the potential to build an even broader, more diverse and more determined movement involving millions of people in many different ways--which is the only way we can win freedom for Mumia.