Music unites protesters at Songs of Freedom event

Noah Pasley

Just steps away from the Capitol in Denver, protesters set the scene for a celebration of Black music and culture.

Musicians perform and people stand to watch
Jae Wess and Vio Sykes perform for protesters in Denver July 18, 2020. (Noah Pasley | The Collegian)

The What’s Next Movement, a social change group created in Denver stemming from the global Black Lives Matter protests, organized Saturday’s protest at the Greek Amphitheatre in Civic Center Park. According to the group’s Facebook page, the event was about protesting the oppression of minorities through the unification of music.

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The event, titled Songs of Freedom, featured nine musical acts, including Brothers of Brass, a Denver-based horn and drum outfit, and Harry Mo, a reggae artist based out of Colorado Springs. The event also gathered vendors just outside the amphitheatre, as well as a food truck from What’s Happening Catering, a Black-owned business.

Music is honestly God’s language. you don’t have to be a certain color, (and) you don’t even have to speak a certain language to play music that everyone can understand.” -Jae Wess, cellist

Cinque Mason, one of the organizers for the event and a third-year Colorado State University student, said that the event aimed to close the economic divide between white communities and minority communities. Mason said that the economic divide began when white people devalued the carpentry and farming skills of Black Americans after slavery.

“There needs to be some sort of reparations, and when I’m saying reparations, I mean a commitment to closing the economic divide forced upon us,” Mason said. “Every time we try to revitalize ourselves, there seems to be a pretty common trend of us being violently or secretly oppressed.”

Musicians perform music for protestors in Denver
Los Mocochetes, a local Mexican funk band, performs for protesters in Denver July 18, 2020. (Noah Pasley | The Collegian)

Mason said that the shift of power from white communities to minorities is bound to happen and that it’s in everyone’s best interest to make the power swing as peacefully as possible, comparing it to the clashes between the Tutsi and the Hutu people in the Rwandan Civil War. 

“For so many years, we have been shut out of the room and quieted,” Mason said. “So I’m just trying to make a space for us to finally sing.” 

The event also included a violin and cello vigil for Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in the custody of Aurora police on Aug. 24, 2019. McClain was a violinist and was known to perform for stray cats at a local shelter.

Vio Sykes, the violinist for the vigil, said that he has been playing his instrument for 11 years and has been composing his own music since high school. Sykes said that opportunities have been difficult for him as a queer Black musician.

“Whenever I get the chance to lift up my instrument for Elijah McClain, it will be for the fact that I really feel him in a sense,” Sykes said. “He was also like us; he was just a person who just had anemia, had health issues.”

Jae Wess, the cellist for the vigil, said that he had been playing the instrument for 13 years but that his main priority is working as a singer and songwriter. Wess said that the history of Black music stems from perseverance and trying to find joy during slavery.

A band performs and people stand to watch
Brothers of Brass performs for protesters in Denver July 18, 2020. (Noah Pasley | The Collegian)

Wess said that Black music has been modernized with different keys and different tempos but that it is around only because Black people were made to endure hardships. He also said that the event opened his eyes to how negligent the community can be when those hardships hit home.

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“In the reality of things, a lot of people are ignorant … that those songs have come because of perseverance,” Wess said. “But at the same time, it looks like a blessing because now we have something.”

Wess said music is essential to keeping people sane and keeping people alive. He also said that music is universal for all people regardless of their identities. 

“Music is honestly God’s language,” Wess said. “You don’t have to be a certain color, (and) you don’t even have to speak a certain language to play music that everyone can understand. Music’s a feeling, so if you hear someone pouring their heart out, you know that they’re feeling something.”

Noah Pasley can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @PasleyNoah.