On Friday night, September 7th, Harlem’s Apollo Theater played host to a historic performance billed as Don’t Tell Me This Country Ain’t Got No Heart: A Benefit for Voter Participation. The HeadCount benefit show was anchored by Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and his Terrapin Family Band along with the guests that had joined them the previous two nights at Central Park and The Capitol Theatre, respectively, guitarist Eric Krasno and vocalist Nicki Bluhm.
The Peter Shapiro-produced benefit came as HeadCount—and the American political system at large—is gearing up for the highly consequential 2018 midterm elections. The show came during a time when the country is arguably more divided than ever before, when hopeless political chaos has begun to feel like the norm, when efforts to unify and rally the masses to vote are of the utmost importance. The gravity of the evening’s message was conveyed by Shapiro in his show-opening speech, and later by HeadCount executive director Andy Bernstein as he introduced set two. “We make our own history,” Shapiro noted in his address, quoting the late Eleanor Roosevelt. “We ask one thing—vote. If every person votes, the right guys will win.”
But the night’s significance did not begin and end with its message of political action. This unprecedented performance had historical implications that stretched into the realms of music, culture, and race.
The Apollo Theater opened in Manhattan’s historically Black Harlem neighborhood more than a century ago. Ever since, the venue has been a pillar of black culture in the city, giving countless world-class performers a stage and serving as a point of pride for the oft-oppressed community it represents.
Throughout the second half of the Apollo’s hundred-plus year lifespan, the Grateful Dead also established itself as an influential cultural institution—though in a largely separate social space. The Grateful Dead fanbase—and the extended jam band scene that eventually followed in its wake—has always been predominantly white. The “why” behind that notion is another complicated conversation for another day, but going into the benefit, the facts remained: No iteration of the Grateful Dead—nor any of its individual members—had ever played Harlem’s entertainment Mecca, and The Grateful Dead could not have been farther from the zeitgeist of contemporary urban culture.
However, in the unifying spirit of this one-of-a-kind show, Shapiro, HeadCount, and the rest of the organizers used the benefit as an opportunity to bridge the gap between these independently revered institutions. They recruited “sacred steel” virtuoso Robert Randolph and the world-renowned Harlem Gospel Choir as special guests on the show, merging the cultures of the house band and the house itself. The show’s billing also featured one more special guest: critically acclaimed hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, with whom Eric Krasno has built a long and fruitful creative relationship.
While it was relatively easy for fans to picture the incorporation of a choir (countless different people have sung this music over the years) and Randolph (a veteran live “Friend” of Phil’s) ahead of time, many were puzzled about where and how a rapper might fit into a Dead show. Those questions were answered in the midst of a second-set “Shakedown Street” when Krasno stepped to the mic to welcome Talib Kweli to the Apollo stage. Kweli, a Brooklyn native, proceeded to join the fray and spit a poignant verse over the ongoing “Shakedown” groove based around the lyrical refrain from Nas, Raekwon, and Mobb Deep‘s “Eye For An Eye”:
As time goes by, an eye for an eye;
We in this together, son, your beef is mine;
As long as the sun shine to light up the sky;
We in this together, son, your beef is mine.
Talib Kweli’s “Shakedown” verse continued in that vein, embodying the ethos of the evening as a whole with conscious turns of phrase that highlighted our nation’s current mindset:
Information make it harder for us to follow discussion;
Educated guesses beat wild assumptions;
Information leads to knowledge, knowledge leads to wisdom, wisdom leads to understanding;
You have all that you start demanding justice;
Justice is what love look like in public.
As the Harlem Gospel Choir took the stage after “Shakedown Street”, keyboardist Jason Crosby began the familiar piano hook from Kweli’s survive-at-all-costs 2002 breakout hit, “Get By”. Talib dedicated the song to 26-year-old rapper Mac Miller, who had died suddenly earlier that day. That shoutout in itself echoed one of the positive evolutions American culture has undergone in recent years. When Kweli recorded the track in 2002, the hip-hop world was still wrapping its head around the concept of a white rapper by way of Eminem. When Miller tragically passed in 2018, the white, Jewish rapper was not just accepted, but also respected by his peers—and will be remembered for his work rather than for his race.
While Talib Kweli’s inclusion in the show mystified fans’ predictions ahead of the benefit, his message in “Get By” proved a perfect fit for the voter participation benefit:
Yo, I activism, attackin’ the system, the Blacks and Latins in prison;
Numbers have risen, they’re victims lackin’ the vision;
Shit, and all they got is rappin’ to listen to;
I let them know we missin’ you, the love is unconditional;
Even when the condition is critical, when the livin’ is miserable;
Your position is pivotal…
At first glance, the prevailing storyline of this historic evening was the intersection of the long-isolated worlds of hip-hop and The Grateful Dead, but the true message of the benefit went much deeper than that. Talib Kweli, the Harlem Gospel Choir, & more joined forces with Phil Lesh at the Apollo. Was it a perfect performance? No. Was it Phil’s best “Shakedown Street” ever? Negative. Was it Talib’s most precise rendition of “Get By”? Of course not. But it was undeniably significant for what it was, for what this musical and cultural summit represented: When you strip away preconceptions and status quo, we’re all people, it’s all music, and the intention is all love. Maybe we’re not so different after all.
You can watch full pro-shot footage of Talib Kweli’s appearance with Phil Lesh & Very Special Friends during the HeadCount voter participation benefit at The Apollo below:
Phil Lesh & Very Special Friends w/ Talib Kweli, The Harlem Gospel Choir – “Shakedown Street”, “Get By”
Make sure you get out and VOTE in the upcoming elections on Tuesday, November 6th. For help finding your local polling place, or to find more information about how you can get involved, visit the HeadCount website.