Socially conscious protest music reaches back to the beginning of music itself, yet modern musicians have struggled with the form in the 21st century. Things have been changing, however, with music’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement following the recent rash of fatal shootings of black men by white police officers. That newfound sense of activism is at the heart of the Strange Fruit music festival, coming to three Milwaukee venues August 12-14.
Organized by prolific Milwaukee musician Jay Anderson and SistaStrings member Chauntee Ross, with assistance from former Alverno Presents artistic director David Ravel and 88Nine’s Tarik Moody, Strange Fruit aims to explore “the thoughts and emotions of local musicians, regarding the current climate of racial relations both in Milwaukee and the country as a whole.” The idea for the fest was inspired by the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and was born out of a communal meal organized by Ross.
“I remember while food was being cooked we were watching a live feed of the shootings in Dallas happen,” Ross says. “I was feeling terrified and helpless and just had reached a new place emotionally where I knew I had to do something. Thankfully, I’m blessed to know some truly gifted and genuine humans, and thus Strange Fruit came about.”
The fest takes its name from the classic, haunting song popularized by Billie Holiday, which describes the lynchings of African-Americans in the 1930s. For Anderson, Holiday’s influence over the fest—and current race relations—is strong.
“If Billie Holiday and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk looked into a video camera and said exactly how they felt about race and what’s happening, we would know what to do right now,” Anderson recently explained in a recent episode of Milwaukee Record‘s On The Record podcast. “But they can’t, so we don’t. They did in their music, but not everyone is musically inclined. So now, we’re going to intentionally create it. We’re intentionally creating a situation in which we can say, ‘No, everyone, listen. This is not okay. This is not okay at all.'”
The Strange Fruit lineup features a diverse cross-section of Milwaukee musicians across multiple genres. New Age Narcissism, D’Amato, Chakara Blu, Bo Triplex, Zed Kenzo, Mike Regal, Milo, New Boyz Club, and Cree Myles are just a few of the artists scheduled to perform.
“The lineup was intentional—crossing boundaries and getting audiences that are fans of such diverse [music] was the first step,” Ross says. “What we hope to accomplish is a sense of unity and understanding and solidarity. The fact that an event like this is taking place in the most segregated city in America and that it’s been so well received so far is beautiful to me. I can’t wait to see what comes out of this. This is what this city needs.”
“For musicians, marching and protesting are ineffective,” Anderson says. “We do not practice marching six hours a day. We practice violin and saxophone and cello and piano and singing six hours a day. If we want to touch people, we touch them with our music.
“Instead of being violent with our bodies and our actions,” he continues, “we will be violent with our art.”
Strange Fruit takes place August 12-14 at The Hotel Foster, Company Brewing, and Cactus Club. Each show is $10 at the door. A three-day pass is $20. Advance tickets can be purchased here. Check out the full lineup below.
Friday, August 12 (The Hotel Foster)
Noh Life (DJ)
Introductions by Deborah Ross
New Age Narcissism
Saturday, August 13 (Company Brewing)
Mike Regal (DJ)
Opening Adrdess by Venice Williams
Kavon Cortez Jones (poetry/spoken word)
Mike Mangione (inside)
Jamie Breiwick and Mitch Shiner playing as “Black Cherry” (outside)
Bo Triplex And His Beautiful Band
Sunday, August 14 (Cactus Club)
Tarik Moody (DJ)
Opening address by Emilio De Torre from the ACLU
Stomata with Jordan Lee
The Carlos Adames Group
New Boyz Club