Music community tackles poverty
Andreao “Fanatic” Heard, United Way of Greater Greensboro spearhead benefit album
It’s not unrealistic to say that music — even just a simple song — can change the world. For many of us, music has helped shape our understanding of things like the Civil Rights movement, anti-war activism, women’s rights, environmental devastation, Native American rights, the AIDS crisis, famine, and many other major issues in our time. Benefit concerts and musical activism have advanced the struggles of small farms, displaced Tibetans, those suffering under Apartheid, and countless other causes. Artists like to think big and to aim high. Greensboro-area musicians are working to fight poverty locally, but they’d like to spur a national discussion.
Members of the regional music community have teamed up with the United Way of Greater Greensboro and local politicians, spiritual leaders, activists, and organizers on a project to raise awareness, focus attention and generate funds to address the issue. Artists United To End Poverty is an ambitious genre-spanning effort, with an album featuring around 40 contributors, with the help of producer Andreao “Fanatic” Heard. The record is set for release on Sept. 6, and Fanatic and his collaborators were busy readying the final mixes and planning events around the launch of the album when I spoke to him by phone about the project earlier this summer.
Fanatic, who has worked with megastars such as Beyonce and Michael Jackson, grew up in Greensboro and had been living in New York and Los Angeles before returning to North Carolina last year. He got involved with a local effort to raise funds for victims of the 2018 tornado and started the drive to showcase local talent while helping those in need.
“I thought this was a great opportunity to uplift the community here and to show how powerful the music community is,” said Fanatic, who’s been impressed with the quality of musical talent in the area and hopes to spread the word that Greensboro has a vibrant pool of musical creativity worthy of attention on a national scale. Fanatic describes the current era as “one of the craziest times in American history,” and he expects musicians to rise to the occasion in the ways they have in the past.
“Bob Marley, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Michael Jackson — all these people used music in a time of crisis like this,” he said.
The album blends elements of spoken word, preaching, education and testimony, with musical threads of soul, hip-hop, electronica, rock, pop, folk and more. One of the first musical numbers includes the line “I just don’t understand why we’re living this way.” The sentiment runs through the record. If America is a wealthy country, and if people, in general, embrace the idea of helping those who are suffering, then it would seem obvious that we, as a nation, would take up the challenge of enacting the virtues of charity. For many of the artists on the album, love is the only solution: Love your neighbor, and everything will get better from there.
Some of the songs clearly address poverty and the ways that financial struggle can undermine other aspects of one’s life. Other songs touch on the importance of having someone to share one’s burdens or to serve as a guide during troubled times. The themes of romance and religion get woven together — the overarching connection being that we all need something outside of ourselves to get through life.
Autumn Nicholas sings an intense, soulful acoustic folk song, “The Square Inside The Circle,” with passionate and expressive vocal ornamentation, gruff growls and high-leaping, quivering trills. “The crack doesn’t mean we’re broken, the crack just leaves us open to new light,” she sings.
Jordan Hawkins contributes a lush, atmospheric, slow-burn soul track, “We Have” that evokes D’Angelo and Stevie Wonder, with lovely hovering choral effects. The idea of selflessness threads through the songs, whether in the service of love or of charitable commitment to others.
Rev. F.W. Wright offers some compelling preaching, set to a mellow flute-heavy groove:
“We’ve got to start somewhere, to gather a sense of our responsibility to each other, that answers the question of antiquity: Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer to that question is that, as the Reverend said, “We are only at our best when we are helping others to become their best.”
The Triangle Afrobeat Orchestra offer a dubbed-out syncopated meditation with rhythmic echo effects and hypnotic off-beat accents.
The collection of material on the record is varied and eclectic, coming at the challenge from all different angles. Fanatic’s “Color Of Love” brings to mind the velvety warmth of Aaron Neville. And TIGO B’s “Step Away From Heaven,” showcases the interesting intersection between hip-hop and mellow folk-pop.
The variety is appropriate for the subject, because, as some of the songs and interludes suggest, poverty can hobble people’s lives in so many ways. One of the interesting points of the album made clear in a bit of testimony from the artist DEViANt, who maps out how he had to choose between pursuing his music or holding down a steady job. That dilemma might seem like a question of personal responsibility, but the fact is that many people might prove to be more excellent parents, civic leaders, mentors or members of the community if the requirements of earning money didn’t consume their waking hours.
The idea that crippling fiscal struggles can prevent people from realizing their potential is something worth considering as a society. It’s easy to shoot down the idealistic hope that we could re-structure the way the average working life in America unfolds. Some would say that it’s a utopian fantasy, but the fact is that other countries provide workers with a greater degree of security and types of freedom.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” sang a famous musician who knew that music could alter history. Society is made up of individuals with their hopes, dreams, and concerns, and when enough people begin to evolve their values, things do start to change.
“There’s a bigger picture here,” Fanatic said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.