Fresh from similar events in Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., six-time Grammy-nominated artist Janelle Monae brought her #BlackLivesMatter activism to Chicago on Monday.
“We don’t come here as artists, as celebrities. We come here as people,” said the 28-year-old artist, speaking to about 200 protesters concerned about police brutality who converged at the Bean in Millennium Park on Monday afternoon before marching to City Hall for a die-in.
“I come here as a black woman. We come as a black man, black human beings,” she added, acknowledging several artists with the Wondaland Records label at her side. “We are particularly drawn to all of the stories in this movement, and we have recorded a tool for you to use, those who are out here on the front lines. This is the least that we can do.”
Monae, whose newest song and ode to the movement, “Hell you Talmbout,” has become a battle cry of protesters nationwide, showed up at the Bean about 2 p.m. — an hour into the protest rally — with the mother of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old Naperville woman who authorities say hanged herself in a Texas jail cell last month.
Monae and Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal — who has rejected authorities’ assertion that her daughter committed suicide and has filed a lawsuit in the case — led the rally, held to promote #RiseUpOctober, a national mobilization for mass protests against police brutality to be held Oct. 22-24.
“We believe that silence is our enemy, but sound is our weapon,” said Monae, whose impromptu news conference stopped tourists and passersby in their tracks and drew a huge crowd.
“We wrote this song because we felt like the names that are often not spoken needed to be heard,” she said of the song, which chants the names of unarmed blacks recently killed by law enforcement, with the refrain, “Won’t you please say his name?”
“This is just continuing the conversation. You guys are the organizers out here on the front lines. We just want to get in however we can, with whatever tools we can, to help you get out your frustration,” Monae said. “This song deals with the anguish, the negligence, the disrespect that has been going on, and the abuse of power, by not all police officers but more than enough.”
Monae, a Prince protege whose chart-topping music has garnered her six Grammy nominations and a historic role as spokeswoman for Cover Girl since she entered the music scene in 2010, then led protesters in singing the song. As she and Reed-Veal chanted the names of those killed, swaying in trance-like motion, the rally took on the feel of a church service.
“I’m still in the grieving process,” Reed-Veal told the crowd in a 15-minute speech that had many shouting words of encouragement and “Amen!”
“I haven’t been out to many of these, but this one was so profound, with Janelle Monae here,” she said, squeezing Monae’s hand.
“Sandy had an assignment, with #SandySpeaks. She had a folder this thick on police brutality. Now her assignment is done, and I’m thankful that God sent that vessel through her,” Reed-Veal said. “You won’t see me rolling on the floor. But you will see me talking, and you will see me praying. That’s what I do.”
Even as she still grieves, Reed-Veal said she takes strength from the protesters in the ever-growing #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“I’m grateful to each and everyone of you. I really am,” she said. “And I encourage you to continue to protest the right way, peacefully, because this is bigger than Sandy, bigger than Trayvon [Martin] and all the other names you haven’t heard about. Black lives matter. Sandra’s life, all lives, matter.”
Monae was scheduled to perform at a secret concert Monday night as part of her “Eephus” tour, which will head to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Atlanta, with the same activism.