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The Strange Fruit Music Festival Looks to Build Bridges

Aug. 9, 2016
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Recent high-profile killings of African American men by white police officers have left Americans of all colors struggling for ways to address such traumas. Before the recent cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile there were Michael Brown, Eric Garner and, here in Milwaukee, Dontre Hamilton. How do we as a nation—and we as a city—address the very real racial inequalities behind such killings? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we create spaces where meaningful dialogue on these contentious topics can begin?

Such questions are at the root of Strange Fruit, a three-day music festival organized by Milwaukee-based musicians Chauntee Ross and Jay Anderson, with help from 88.9 DJ Tarik Moody and Alverno Presents artistic director David Ravel. The festival, featuring such acts as SistaStrings, New Age Narcissism, New Boyz Club, Peter Vincent Mulvey, Lilo Allen and Foreign Goods, will take place across three venues: The Hotel Foster (Friday, Aug. 12); Company Brewing (Saturday, Aug. 13); and the Cactus Club (Sunday, Aug. 14). 

To event co-organizer Ross, the diversity of the lineup was important. “These artists have a love for all peoples and those who aren’t people of color have an understanding of what their role is and how they can be advocates in their respective communities,” Ross says. At the same time, the performances will take place in venues that often host white acts that appeal predominantly to white audiences. To Ross, reaching out to such places is “all about bridge building and connecting and [creating] empathy that leads to community action.”

This community action begins with honest conversation. The day after Castile’s killing, Ross found herself speaking with friends, having, in her words, “a group dialogue about the social climate of our communities and what we could do with the tools we have right now to be agents of solidarity and change.” For Ross and Anderson, the tool at their disposal was music. “We wanted to do something in response [to the killing of Castile],” explains Anderson, “and the natural thing to do seemed to be to respond with art.”

To Anderson, music seemed the ideal vehicle to speak to a significant number of Milwaukeeans regarding such high-profile incidences as the Castile and Sterling killings. “In what way do I influence large amounts of people?” Anderson asked himself. His response? “My music.” For Ross, the long history of culture as a means of political protest also informed the decision to organize Strange Fruit. Citing the example of Nina Simone, Ross finds this history “powerful—inciting entire generations to actions through art is fascinating to me.” 

But Strange Fruit is not meant to merely reflect such a history; it is meant to stoke conversation and create true community. Ross is incredibly cognizant of the importance of such an event for a city like Milwaukee. To Ross, “The fact that we’re doing this event in one of the most segregated cities and people from all different walks are going to be in the same room for the same cause is beautiful.”

There is little doubt that Strange Fruit is an experiment, one whose outcome is far from certain. Culture can bring people together, and it can spur them to speak and act. Yet the real measure of Strange Fruit’s impact will not only come during the performances themselves. It will come in what they inspire in the days, weeks and years afterward. Strange Fruit may be a tentative first step in such a lengthy and complicated discussion on race, but it is a necessary one.

The Strange Fruit music festival runs Aug. 12-14.

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