No time for 'Kumbaya': Musicians Tackle Racism Head-on in 'Shining a Light' Benefit

The idea wasn't unusual: Gather a bunch of rock, pop, R&B, country and hip-hop stars for a concert highlighting an important cause — in this case, numerous instances of racial strife across the U.S.

The response from the music community, however, was anything but business as usual.

"I didn't think quite honestly we could afford another 'Kumbaya' moment," said Grammy-winning songwriter, singer and producer Pharrell Williams about the call he got to participate in a concert for unity. "That's not where the world is right now. The world needs action."

The push-back by Williams and several of his peers resulted in a concert and TV special that signals an evolution in the long history of pop music benefit concerts — from a star-studded spotlight on a single issue to a serious effort to explore its roots and search for answers.

"I was a little skeptical of the concert," pop-R&B singer-songwriter John Legend told The Times. "It's not like artists of different races don't sing together. We do that at all sorts of events…. It's not enough just to come together and sing…. For me it was really important to go deeper."

The sentiments of Williams and Legend were echoed by other participants in back-to-back specials airing Friday night on all six cable channels of A&E Networks: the two-hour "Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America," filmed Wednesday night in Los Angeles, and the hour-long "Shining a Light: Conversations on Race in America."

Instead of merely bringing leading lights from the pop music world to one stage for a night, organizers and participants in "Shining a Light" also traveled to Charleston, S.C.; Ferguson, Mo.; and Baltimore. They filmed musical performances from epicenters of violent episodes, and then launched public dialogues in those communities aimed at healing wounds and sparking cross-cultural understanding.

The first indication that something different was up at Wednesday's Los Angeles taping of the concert portion was that the standard all-hands-on-deck number bringing the evening's heavy-hitter musicians together onstage came not at the endbut at the beginning.

We can promote talking, and then, yeah, when you add the music to that, it becomes something different. - Pharrell Williams

Bruce Springsteen, joined by Legend and Tom Morello, performed his 2001 song "American Skin (41 Shots)," which he wrote in response to the 1999 death of Guinea immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was killed by police. The choir behind them included most of the evening's star performers, among them, Williams, Sting, Smokey Robinson, the Zac Brown Band, Pink, Ed Sheeran, Sia, Miguel, Aloe Blacc, Eric Church, Jamie Foxx, Tori Kelly, Jill Scott, Nick Jonas and Big Sean.

Robert Sharenow, executive vice president and general manager of A&E Networks, which will carry Friday's show on A&E, the History Channel, Lifetime, H2, LMN and FYI, said that the idea for the concert and special was a response to the shooting in June at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston that left nine churchgoers dead.

"There was a universal reaction of horror from all sides of our company," Sharenow said. "We're a big media company. We thought, 'Is there something we can do to raise awareness? To raise money?'"

Musician-led benefits began in earnest in 1971 with George Harrison's all-star "Concert for Bangladesh" and has continued over the decades with the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts highlighting strife in Africa as well as concerts after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. and benefits after natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.

Musicians, actors and other entertainers often have shifted from advocacy to activism, directly lobbying politicians and other government officials on various political issues. The A&E special brings advocacy artistry and journalism together in a single television program.

"The feeling among the musicians was that ideas that may have worked well in the 1960s and '70s aren't enough today," said Ken Ehrlich, veteran producer of the annual Grammy Awards telecast who is producing the A&E concert special, which will be broadcast on more than 130 iHeartMedia broadcast radio stations nationwide, and co-producing the conversations companion show.

Added Sharenow, "People didn't want this to turn into a show where people sing songs, we feel good about ourselves and then go away."

Ehrlich and other program organizers dispatched teams to Ferguson, Charleston and Baltimore to engage with survivors, family members and friends of victims of violence as well as with members of law enforcement, local governments and other community leaders to initiate what Legend referred to as "difficult conversations" about matters of race in the U.S. in 2015.

"I went to Ferguson, and to St. Louis, to talk to a range of people," said the 36-year-old native of Springfield, Ohio, who sang Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as part of his visit to Ferguson.

"We met with Michael Brown's mother, representatives of the young black protesters [at marches in Ferguson after Brown's shooting death by a Ferguson police officer]. We also spoke to police to get their perspective and to community leaders," Legend said. "We brought everybody together in a church. It wasn't supposed to be easy. These are supposed to be difficult conversations. And it did feel uncomfortable. But the conversation was real."

Alicia Keys engaged in similar discussions with adults and children in Baltimore, and Williams was part of the crew that went to Charleston, where he sang his song "Freedom" in the Emanuel AME Church. After touring the slave quarters on a former plantation, Williams said during his filmed segment that the experience unnerved him.

Those location segments are moderated by journalists Soledad O'Brien (Starfish Media Group), Michele Norris (National Public Radio) and Byron Pitts (ABC News). Actors and other entertainment and sports figures taking part in other aspects of the show include LL Cool J, Morgan Freeman, Nicki Minaj, George Lopez, Mario Lopez, Kurt Warner, Nick Young and Marshall Faulk.

A&E's promo clip for the program begins "Racism is real … and we need to have a conversation about it." Onstage Wednesday, Minaj recited Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" and Freeman quoted South African leader Nelson Mandela's observation about social and political change: "It always seems impossible, until it's done."

Williams, whose upbeat hit "Happy" became a ubiquitous good-time anthem of 2014, said the conversations are intended only as a beginning.

"We can promote talking, and then, yeah, when you add the music to that, it becomes something different," Williams said. "It becomes a community, a network and musicians all coming together to start the talks."

Sharenow said the musicians and other "Shining a Light" participants went "above and beyond in terms of what you'd expect from a performer involved in something like this. It's not a situation where people are showing up in their jets, getting onstage and then rushing off. They are rolling up their sleeves and getting out on the front lines. It's not a glamorous assignment. It is uncomfortable."

Morello said the project resonated strongly with him because of instances of racism he experienced first-hand growing up in Harlem.

"I think everyone who has a feeling of moral outrage of this country's systemic problem of racism should speak out about it in their vocation," said Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and his solo project the Nightwatchman. "What we've got in music is the combination of rhythm and rhyme and meaning that, when it's done right, feels like the truth that reaches something deep in our DNA, deep in our reptilian brain and connects people and creates a sense of community. I don't know that any other art form can do that."

Still, Morello is realistic about the project's outcome.

"Racism is as American as baseball and apple pie," he said. "Will one concert end it? Not likely. But shining a light on racism is an opening to dialogue."

NYT: What to Watch Monday

BARBARA WALTERS PRESENTS AMERICAN SCANDALS 10 p.m. on Investigation Discovery Barbara Walters revisits notorious events that she has covered through high-profile interviews. Tonight’s subject is Jean Harris (1923-2012), whose arrest and conviction in the 1980 murder of her lover Herman Tarnower, a.k.a. the Scarsdale Diet doctor, riveted the nation. The program includes new footage from Ms. Walters’s conversations with Mrs. Harris and a new interview with Mrs. Harris’s son Jim.

ABC Presents "MADOFF," The story of One of the Greatest Cons in History

"Madoff" Airs February 3-4, 2016

Get a look into the mind of the man who pulled off one of the greatest cons in history in the primetime miniseries "Madoff," airing FEBRUARY 3-4, 2016 (8:00 - 10:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss stars as Bernie Madoff, with Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth. "Madoff" will follow the prodigious rise and abrupt demise of the former investment advisor and the subsequent fallout with his family, associates and investors.

Madoff's Ponzi scheme is considered to be the largest financial scam in United States history, but the impact was global. Losing billions of dollars for clients worldwide, including philanthropic foundations, celebrities, and retirement portfolios, the story of the fall of three-time NASDAQ Chair Bernie Madoff dominated headlines in 2008-2009. The miniseries explores the complicated family dynamics within the Madoff clan and exposes the motivations and mechanics behind the monumental fraud.

"Madoff" also stars Tom Lipinski as Mark Madoff, Danny Defarrari as Andrew Madoff, Peter Scolari as Peter Madoff, Erin Cummings as Eleanor Squillari, Michael Rispoli as Frank DiPascali, Frank Whaley as Harry Markopolos. The miniseries also features Charles Grodin and Lewis Black.

"Madoff" is inspired by ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross' reporting from his book "The Madoff Chronicles" and additional reporting on the topic. "Madoff" is produced by Lincoln Square Productions in association with ABC Entertainment. Linda Berman and Joe Pichirallo executive produce. "Madoff" is directed by Raymond De Felitta and written by Ben Robbins.

ABC Sets February Premiere Date for ‘Madoff’ Miniseries

ABC’s “Madoff” miniseries will air Wednesday, Feb. 3 and Thursday, Feb. 4, the network announced Thursday.

Airing back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday, “Madoff” will take the place of ABC’s Wednesday night comedy block and also Shondaland’s hit TGIT drama block.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss as Bernie Madoff and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth, the two-night event will take a look into the mind of the man who pulled off one of the greatest cons in history, following the prodigious rise and abrupt demise of the former investment advisor and the subsequent fallout with his family, associates and investors.

“Madoff” also stars Tom Lipinski as Mark Madoff, Danny Defarrari as Andrew Madoff, Peter Scolari as Peter Madoff, Erin Cummings as Eleanor Squillari, Michael Rispoli as Frank DiPascali, Frank Whaley as Harry Markopolos, and features Charles Grodin and Lewis Black.

The project is inspired by ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross’ book “The Madoff Chronicles,” plus more reporting on the topic. “Madoff” hails from Lincoln Square Productions for ABC Entertainment. Linda Berman and Joe Pichirallo are exec producers, and Raymond De Felitta directed the miniseries, which was written by Ben Robbins.

Key O.J. Simpson Murder Trial Witness Kato Kaelin Says He Thinks the Former Athlete Is 'Guilty'

20 years after the infamous 1995 trial, key O.J. Simpson trial witness Kato Kaelin says he believes that the former NFL player is guilty in the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.

In an clip from his upcoming Monday interview with Barbara Walters for her Investigation Discovery's Barbara Walters Presents American Scandals, Kaelin, now 56, opened up about testifying in Simpson's headline-making trial...



A+E’s ‘Shining a Light’ Concert Special to Air Internationally

A+E Networks’ upcoming special, “Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America,” will air across more than 135 territories internationally, the company announced Monday.

Airing on Nov. 20 in the U.S. across A+E’s portfolio of networks — A&E, HISTORY, Lifetime, H2, LMN and FYI — as well as on iHeartMedia broadcast radio stations and the iHeartRadio digital platform, the concert will feature performances from Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, Jamie Foxx, Rhiannon Giddens, Tori Kelly, John Legend, Miguel, Pink, Jill Scott, Ed Sheeran, Sia, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Pharrell Williams, among others. The special will include a series of duets “focused on creating reconciliation and positive change across communities around the world,” according to a network release.


“Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America” is produced by Ken Ehrlich Productions in conjunction with A+E Networks and iHeartMedia. “Shining a Light: Conversations on Race in America” is produced by Lincoln Square Productions and Ken Ehrlich Productions in conjunction with A&E Network. For Ken Ehrlich Productions, EPs are Ken Ehrlich and Rac Clark, with Renato Basile producing. David Wild and Phil Gallo will write, while Leon Knoles will direct. Jeanmarie Condon is senior exec producer for Lincoln Square Productions, with Roxanna Sherwood serving as EP. A+E Networks exec producers are Paul Buccieri, Rob Sharenow, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Shelly Tatro and Dan Silberman.