As the problems of America incited protests across America, the streets of New York City became well worn by those demanding more for their country. Shouts and chants weren’t the only sounds comprising the din of the city’s demonstrations. There was a marching band, jazz trio, vocalist, string orchestra, and tap dancer heard within these movements, and they are a movement unto themselves—they are The Blacksmiths.
“After the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and on and on the list goes—and then the riots—I thought, Man, we got to do something,” recalled Russell Hall, a Jamaican-born, Juilliard-trained jazz bassist. It was early June and New York City had just implemented a week-long curfew to mitigate looting and riots in the wake of protests. “We were watching everything going on, and it was not good,” said professional tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman. “And we understood [the riots], but we just didn’t want anybody to get hurt.” With their convictions and concerns, Hall and Lerman contacted Brice Rosenbloom, the producer of New York City’s Winter JazzFest, who then reached out to nearly 60 artists, promoters, and curators. “And we formed The Blacksmiths,” Hall said.
As set forth on their website, this socio-political coalition of artists and organizers is “committed to using the arts to support direct action and civic engagement in the service of Black liberation and equity.” The group’s composition fluctuates, with sometimes five and sometimes 50 artists gathering to perform. Their beliefs—which include “the obliteration of systemic racism in the cultural infrastructure [and] working with People of Color and people of conscience who are committed to Black liberation”—are expressed through the myriad of talents each artist brings to the organization.
The Blacksmiths debuted in Harlem with a Juneteenth Jubilee, then performed at a Celebration of Black Life the next day in Foley Square. They then produced Eric Garner Day on September 15 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Niama Safia Sandy, a cultural anthropologist, curator, essayist, and key member of The Blacksmiths, helped produce the event alongside drummer, composer, and jazz educator Bryan Carter, who conducted the string orchestra. “And I led the band, which was comprised of horns, tubas, everything you can imagine,” said Hall. The celebration, held on what would have been Garner’s 50th birthday, commemorated the Staten Islander—who died by a police chokehold in 2014—by advocating for the day to be declared an official day of remembrance.
Though some events are planned months in advance, The Blacksmiths also coalesce at a moment’s notice to provide music and performance for other activists’ demonstrations. Their partnerships have included The Movement for Black Lives, The Democratic Socialists of America, The Wide Awakes, and Intersectional Voices Collective (a collective of Black, POC, and LGBTQIA artists). “We’ve worked with so many different protest groups within New York,” Hall said. “And with thousands of people in the streets, the music elevates the purpose of the march from just being about abolishing the police or getting Donald Trump out of office or whatever it may be, to celebrating that we have our lives.”
And as their music elevates a protest to a celebration, The Blacksmiths have seen their original purpose actualize. “As we’re marching and performing, we see cops smile and dance too,” Lerman said. “The music makes it safer—it pacifies both the people and the police.”
This unique approach is sourced from the legacy of American social reform and American music itself. “Music played a huge role in the protest movements of the sixties, and I’ve always felt that that’s been missing in our time,” said Oran Etkin, an internationally acclaimed clarinet, saxophone, and bass clarinet player. Alongside Hall, Etkin leads bands within The Blacksmiths. He explained that their style is inspired by the New Orleans second-line tradition, which brings brass bands into the streets, and that, similar to other musical protesters in New York, The Blacksmiths also recognize the unique life of the current moment. “We’re not just trying to present something historical,” Etkin said. “We’re trying to keep up the momentum of this struggle to improve America, a struggle that’s been going on for centuries.”
This struggle is perhaps most evident in the approaching presidential election. The Blacksmiths have therefore joined the momentum of Lift Every Vote, a nationwide campaign that encourages voter engagement. Since October 3, Blacksmiths across the city have been accepting Lift Every Vote’s simple performance challenge: host an outdoor performance, encourage your audience to make a voting plan, and nominate other artists to follow suit. The end is civic engagement—and the means have incited jazz trios, dancers, poets, DJs, and more into the streets, squares, and parks of New York City as the election approaches.
Etkin has completed a number of Lift Every Vote challenges, including a front porch blues session in Ditmas. “And I did another performance in Prospect Park after the first debate that was like a musical debate,” Etkin said. “I played tenor saxophone and then there was a baritone sax player, and the moderator was a bass player. We traded back and forth and actually listened to each other.”
Etkin’s next Lift Every Vote performance will be at 6pm on Friday, October 30 and will feature the band Timbila (including Nora Balaban & Banning Eyre) and the band Pinc Louds. The event will include a live concert and a screening of short films produced by each act. And, of course, attendees will be encouraged to make sure they have a voting plan. The performance will take place outside The Front art gallery in the East Village at 526 E. 11th Street.
As long as calls for justice, equity, and the elevation of Black excellence are made throughout New York, Blacksmiths will be heard—often with Hall’s upright bass, Lerman’s tap, and Etkin’s clarinet in the thick of it. “In African spirituality, the blacksmith is the spirit Ogun, and he forges the way for protection and revolution,” Hall said, “and that’s what The Blacksmiths are—the protection is the art and music, and we are forging the way for justice.”