Last week at Milwaukee Record’s annual “Roast of Milwaukee,” it seemed like every comedian landed a pointed jab at the city’s hyper-segregation—and with good reason. In a place where residents get so worked up about publicly-funded basketball stadiums, streetcars and a new flag, the city’s most glaring black eye is the lack of diversity in its communities and the wider problems that causes.
And now it’s more important than ever to come together. While the country usually feels polarized during a presidential election year, 2016 seems extreme. This past summer was an especially trying for racial tensions. The shootings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by police officers over consecutive days in July reverberated across the country. Here in Milwaukee, SistaStrings’ violinist Chauntee Ross felt particularly distressed.
“I wanted to get together with my friends and family and process and grieve,” she says. “I was feeling really helpless. And then I was like, ‘I’m sick of feeling helpless. What can we do right now with what we have to start being agents of change?’”
Ross got together with jazz saxophonist Jay Anderson (of Foreign Goods, Stomata and New Age Narcissism) and the two decided to collaborate on a three-day musical gathering that serves as a memorial to Sterling and Castile while also providing an arena to discuss (or simply vent about) the racial problems plaguing the country. (88Nine RadioMilwaukee DJ Tarik Moody and former Alverno Presents director David Ravel were also brought on as co-producers.) Strange Fruit, which takes its name from a jarring Billie Holiday song, sets out to spark a conversation between the community.
“We’re trying to make a situation in which the communication and conversations can happen that start to bridge [the gap],” Anderson says.
The festival features performances from a diverse cast of musicians, including rappers, singer-songwriters, jazz ensembles and a classically-trained string duo. The hope is to inspire a sense of belonging by blending all these styles and performers.
“We get together and then their fans get together,” Anderson says. “[SistaStrings and John Sieger] are going to play a song together for the show and when that moment happens…for one brief moment of absorbing that music everything else besides who they are intentionally falls away.”
In addition to the music, the schedule includes presentations from prominent figures in the community. An opening introduction from Ross’s mother, Deborah, will dive into her troublesome upbringing and reinforce the importance of educating not only yourself but the next generation of children. Other speakers include conservation warden Gervis Myles, Venice Williams of Alice’s Garden and Emilio De Torre of the American Civil Liberties Union.
With the funds raised over the weekend, Anderson plans to release three projects after the festival is over. Volume One seeks to capture the current racial climate through interviews with the musicians. Volume Two is a live compilation of songs that discuss the situation. And Volume Three is “a cinematographic video album that you can listen to the lyrics and the music without watching the video and get the message, and you can watch the video on mute and still get the message.”
“The message is: this is where we are now and how do move out of that?” Anderson says.
Strange Fruit came together out of necessity and Anderson sounds distraught when discussing possible future iterations of the festival.
“It’s an amazing festival with brilliant musicians, but the reason why we’re getting together is an unfortunate one,” he laments. “The fruit of our labor is a strange fruit. It would be cool if would all get together and do this because we like each other and want to make an awesome festival together. But instead it has to be because cops are killing people.
“Maybe something can happen every year but … I don’t want the rate of police killings to happen so quickly and such a vast and strange rate that we have to get together and figure out how to communicate to our city about that. I hope that by this time next year at least part that has stopped.”
Strange Fruit takes place this weekend at Hotel Foster, 2028 E. North Ave., on Friday, August 12; Company Brewing, 735 E. Center St., on Saturday August 13; and Cactus Club, 2496 S. Wentworth Ave., on Sunday, August 14. Tickets can be purchased at the door. A full weekend pass costs $20 and is available here. The full schedule of performers is below:
Friday, August 12 at Hotel Foster
Introductions by Deborah Ross, 6 p.m.
M Cree Myles, 6:20 p.m.
Thine Queen Tut, 7 p.m.
Gervis Myles, 8 p.m.
Dasha Kelly, 8:30 p.m.
Chakara Blu, 9 p.m.
D’Amato, 10 p.m.
ZED KENZO, 11 p.m.
New Age Narcissism, 12 a.m.
Saturday, August 13 at Company Brewing
DJ Mike Regal
Opening Address by Venice Williams, 9 p.m.
MRS. FUN, 9:20 p.m.
Lilo Allen, 10 p.m.
Kavon Cortez Jones, 10:15 p.m.
John Sieger, 10:30 p.m.
Mike Mangione (inside), 11:15 p.m.
Jamie Breiwick and Mitch Shiner as black cherry (outside), 11:15 p.m.
Bo Triplex and His Beautiful Band, 12 a.m.
Sunday, August 14 The Cactus Club
Opening address by Emilio De Torre from the ACLU, 6 p.m.
Stomata with Jordan Lee, 6:20 p.m.
Peter Mulvey, 7 p.m.
Brit Nicole, 7:30 p.m.
Tontine Ensemble, 7:45 p.m.
The Carlos Adames Group, 8:40 p.m.
New Boyz Club, 9:35 p.m.
Foreign Goods, 10:30 p.m.
SistaStrings, 11:15 p.m.
Milo (Rapsmith), 12:30 a.m.