As if we needed proof that the acquittal of George Zimmerman was -- in the words of Jay Smooth -- going to create more George Zimmermans. A mere hour before that shameful verdict came down, the great Lester Chambers was assaulted, on stage, by a crazed attendee at the Hayward Russell City Blues Festival. What did she assault him for? Dedicating a song to Trayvon Martin.
This message was put up by Chambers’ son Dylan on his father’s Facebook page at 6pm on Saturday: "Dylan Here.... Lester was just assaulted on stage at The Russell City Hayward Blues Festival by a crazed woman after dad dedicated People Get Ready to Trayvon Martin. He is on the way to the hospital now ..."
The woman who assaulted him, Dinalynn Andrews Potter, apparently leapt onto the stage screaming “it’s all your fault” before shoving him to the ground. She was arrested soon after. Thankfully Chambers is okay; a couple hours later Dylan posted that his father had suffered a few bruised ribs and some nerve damage, but is expected to make a full recovery. Hundreds of comments have sprung up on Lester’s Facebook wishing him well.
Chambers, of course, was a driving force behind the Chambers Brothers in the 1960’s. When the Black freedom struggle was shaping music in an undeniable way, their psychedelia-tinged soul became a familiar staple. Their song “Time Has Come Today” spent several weeks just shy of puncturing the Top Ten and sold half a million copies.
“People Get Ready,” a B-side to “Time,” is possibly the most appropriate song to dedicate to Trayvon. Originally written by Curtis Mayfield in the wake of the March on Washington, Chambers’ current version is determined, rootsy and rough, as soulful as it is defiant.
More recently, Lester came back into the news when his “I am the 99%” photo went viral, spreading the story of how, despite having a Gold record under his belt, he had been systematically bilked of royalties and payments, and was in deep medical debt.
The picture helped renew a debate about how it is that the music business, with its images of pampered millionaire stars, can so willfully allow some of its best musicians -- particularly its Black musicians -- to be put out to pasture.
Sweet Relief Musicians Fund raised tens of thousands for him in the weeks after that photo hit the web. In an outpouring of solidarity and support, thousands of people donated to a Kickstarter campaign to help him record a new album.
Lester seems poised for something of a comeback too; the new album Lester’s Time Has Come is due to be released digitally any day now, and he’s been booked to play several dates on this summer’s jazz and blues festival circuit.
Now, this: One more reminder of just how much the New Jim Crow resembles the old Jim Crow. Though we will learn more details over the coming days and weeks about Chambers’ attacker, one thing is for sure: this was an act -- albeit likely a spontaneous one -- rooted in the same impetus that led George Zimmerman to stalk Trayvon in the first place.
It sends a clear message; that white America may listen to your music and watch your concerts, but step out of line and we’ll subject you to the wrath of the lynch mob.
Lester’s scars will heal, at least on the outside, but there is no getting around the deep wound slicing through this country; leaving in its wake not just Trayvon Martin but Rekia Boyd, Jordan Davis, Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray, Wendell Allen, Shantel Davis and so many others whose names we may never even know.
Hopefully there will be time to heal in the near future. Frankly, it’s going to take more than justice for that to be the case; it’s going to take an assurance that no more African Americans will ever be attacked or killed simply for not playing the role that white supremacy has mapped out for them. It’s also going to take an end to real
Now, however, is the time to be angry, to put our feet on the ground and shout until we’re hoarse -- as so many have already done this past weekend. To take a cue from Lester himself and his generation, who fought to bring down legal and de facto segregation by any means necessary.
To not just confront American racism but -- in a paraphrase of Arundhati Roy "to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness... our sheer relentlessness."
On the night of the verdict, I went down to Chicago’s Daley Plaza with others, to mourn and vent in the most public way possible. What started out as a rally of maybe 40 quickly grew to a march of 300, led by Black youth.
Among them was Young Chicago Author Malcolm London. If you don’t know Malcolm London then do yourself a favor and listen to him now; you’ll quickly understand why no less a figure than Cornel West has called him “the Gil Scott-Heron of this generation.”
Malcolm wasn’t in the mood for poetry on Saturday. He, like many others, had tears trickling down his face as he spoke from the front of the rally. “We had to show the people we can’t stand for this no more,” he declared, quite simply. “No more lives in this country should have to die unjustly, and that’s not fair, and that’s not cool.”
Let us also not forget that there are artists and activists throughout the hip-hop world who have already poured their souls into speaking out for Trayvon. From underground mainstays like Jasiri X and Rebel Diaz to dead prez and Yasiin Bey, from Nas and Jay-Z to David Banner, the Game and Young Jeezy. The Twitter accounts of Nicki Minaj, Raekwon, Juelz Santana and countless others have naturally been abuzz with condemnation of the verdict.
And you’d better believe than when hip-hop moves, the rest of the world moves with it. Almost as if its artists have been taking the words of Curtis Mayfield (sung by Lester Chambers) to heart: “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’ / You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.”
All aboard, people. All aboard.
[Reprinted from Red Wedge magazine.]