Nina Simone once asked, “How can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times?” The late Simone, renowned for her fierce cognizance and soaring artistry, shaped her era with this societal wisdom. Reflecting on the role of artists, she said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times…at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival. I don’t think you can help but be involved.”
Art has always been an instrument of change – a salve for wounds both seen and unseen. It’s not a passive observer of history. It’s an active participant in shaping it.
Two decades after the passing of Simone, her words resonate with more urgency than ever. Today, we bear witness to the harrowing struggles in Gaza and Sudan. Since the onset of the war in Sudan in April 2023 and the attacks on Gaza starting in October 2023, we’ve collectively grappled with how to use our platforms and voices to illuminate these unfolding tragedies. Artists, big and small, have taken to social media, to the streets, assuming the roles of advocates, keeping the spirit of Simone’s words alive. Now they take to the stage, stepping up to a global platform, telling the world that we won’t stand for these injustices, we are here, we are united and we lend our voices to those who cannot speak.
In response to this strife and the tremendous grief rippling through our region, Sudanese-Canadian artist Mustafa the Poet has stepped up to the plate, orchestrating the ‘Artist for Aid’ benefit concert for Gaza and Sudan. “The violence in both nations seized the dream. Here it is revived for me in some way. The intention remains, on this evening we give our voices to make room for theirs,” he reflects on Instagram. Reaching out to his peers in the international music community, he rallied them, calling on them to use their voices and platforms to raise awareness of the tragedies in Gaza and Sudan.
The ‘Artists for Aid’ benefit concert took place in the Newark Symphony Hall in New Jersey on January 4th. The neoclassical hall, draped in red, green, and white lights – an ode to the Palestinian and Sudanese flags, saw performances from the likes of Omar Apollo, Charlotte Day Wilson, 070Shake, Daniel Caesar, 6lack, Elyanna, Faye Webster, Nick Hakim, Clairo, Stormzy, Mohammed El Kurd, MC Abdul, Ramy Youssef and other special guests like Safia Elhillo and Hala Aylan.
All proceeds were directed to Human Concern International, a Muslim-Canadian organization that provides food, clean water, medical care, and education in areas ravaged by conflict.
Welcoming the audience, Mustafa the Poet set the tone for an evening of collective healing and solemn solidarity, with a uniting message of resilience and hope: “It’s easy to feel increasingly hopeless with everything that’s going on,” he said.
With a steady cadence, Mustafa went on to recite “No Moses in Siege,” a poem by Palestinian writer Mohammed el-Kurd, who was set to attend Artists for Aid but lost his passport and was stuck in London. “What do you to say to children from whom the Red Sea does not part?” he asks.
The night unfurled with a string of powerful musical acts, from Stormzy performing “Hide & Seek” and “Holy Spirit” to Omar Apollo’s stirring performance of “Evergreen and “3 Boys” and Daniel Caesar strumming his guitar to “ARE YOU OK?” and “Best Part.”
Then there came a moment of quiet introspection. Clairo’s gently played guitar harmonies, intertwining with the poetic performances of Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo and Palestinian-American poet Hala Alyan, giving the crowd a pause to reflect and just…feel. “The war makes me a bad poet. The war makes me a bad friend, bad daughter,” said Elhillo. “Busy with the company of the dead over the living.” Both poets delivered their verses in a tone that was silvery yet fierce, articulating each word with a measured rhythm layered in anguish.
Following her performance, Elhillo later reflected on the event on Instagram, sharing this heartfelt message, capturing the sentiment of the night, “In solidarity, with hope, in memory of my dearest poet, in offering to our dearest homelands. We will all of us be free. Thank you for this evening, for the reminder of endurance as hope. for being each other’s business. for the company of my loves…that we got to do this together. that we will not look away, we will not go quiet.”
As the two-and-a-half-hour event neared its conclusion, it was energized by an emotive performance from Palestinian-Chilean singer Elyanna, followed by the compelling verses of Gaza-born 15-year old rap prodigy MC Abdul.
The show culminated with comedian Ramy Youssef, who infused the evening with a touch of light-heartedness.
The benefit concert underscored that community transcends physical proximity or digital connections. It’s about a shared responsibility for our collective fate. It was an evening dedicated to collective healing and learning, where good and bad are universally understood without complication. It speaks to the vital role of art in reflecting and shaping the times we live in.