Athens in Harmony

By Bertis Downs

Photo by Daniel Borremans

A few years ago, some musicians in Athens, Georgia, decided our town needed a musical celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the January holiday in his honor. They conceived something called Athens in Harmony. Their idea: Bring together all kinds of music and activists — many of whom didn’t yet know each other — to share a stage and a song or 10 together. Just see what happens. What could go right?

Turns out, a lot.

The 2018 version, the third incarnation of Athens in Harmony, was so meaningful and memorable to me that it stuck with me for weeks afterward. I know the people who organize it — friends around town. As the 2019 Athens in Harmony was being planned, I first heard the 2017 version of Neil Young’s epic 1970 protest song “Ohio,” arranged and sung, almost like a church choir, by Jon Batiste, Leon Bridges, and Gary Clark Jr.

They had updated a Vietnam-era protest anthem for these fragile times, which are especially so for young men of color.

That’s when I suggested that for the 2019 Athens in Harmony, they consider letting me sing the Neil Young part of the rocking CSNY version of the song — and that we all think of local musicians who might want to embrace 2017’s  reimagined, almost a cappella take.

They said, “Okay, but do you really want to sing it?” They knew I’ve spent four decades in the music business, but always offstage. I said I was no pro at all, but I loved Neil and had nearly 50 years of singing the song to myself. They agreed. I asked if they would bring in Rob McMaken, a local schoolteacher who also has a band called Hog-Eyed Man, to play either the Nils the or Danny or the Poncho guitar part with the rocking house band already onstage?  

More loud guitar is always better when it comes to Neil. The deal was done.  

With one brief rehearsal at Nuçi’s Space, half a soundcheck, and a key last-minute pinch-hit from Athens rapper Ishues (who until soundcheck had never heard “Ohio,” either version), we dubbed ourselves Ten Soldiers and did “Ohio” two ways.

Ten Soldiers:  Mindy Towe, Scott Towe, Claire Campbell, Neal Priest, Andrew Hanmer, Knowa Johnson, Bertis Downs, Ishues, Rob McMaken, Michael Wegner. Filmed by James Preston, audio by Kevin Sweeney.


I only wish my voice was a little more like Neil’s, that my attempt to channel the old man had not seemed more Bill Murray than anyone else, but I guess we all just go with what we got. It turned out pretty well, and I am glad somebody figured out how to end it.

Later, I asked Pat Priest, the originator of this idea to bring people together for a shared musical event on MLK Weekend, how Athens in Harmony came to be. Pat co-produces the concert each year with Mokah and Knowa Johnson, local citizen advocates and founders of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement AADM, the Athens Hiphop Awards, our town’s MLK Day parade and festival, among other local forces for good.

This is what she told me.

"Athens is known for its robust music scene, but the outpouring is like a mono signal disconnected from the town's vibrant hip-hop scene and its churches bursting with great gospel singers,” Pat said. “And the level of distrust between people of color and the cops in Athens still simmers. To address these problems, Athens in Harmony — now in its fourth year — pairs musicians across color and genre lines to perform duets, and a prominent black activist and someone from the police force emcee the show. The concert of 10 duets and a couple of bonus performances — usually scheduled for the Martin Luther King holiday weekend — benefits the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. The result is incredible and uplifting, the show sells out, and people learn about the pain and varied forms of discrimination from short anecdotes told by some of the performers about incidents of racism they have experienced. As one of the emcees — a Muslim police chaplain — said after the rocking and then haunting renditions of ‘Ohio’: 'Tonight’s show is a protest against all forms of state violence against innocent people.' The concert wraps up with an audience singalong of ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ with rappers substituting their lines for Lennon’s in an extended, rousing plea for peace and justice for all.”

So Athens in Harmony has evolved into a benefit for AADM. Mokah and Knowa Johnson founded the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement a few years ago, responding to the daily reality of racial profiling, oppression, police misconduct, and other issues facing Athenians who “live while black or brown.”

For instance, many Athens bars over the years have selectively claimed to have “dress codes.” They use these to prohibit entrance to people of color who are wearing jeans, for example, though other patrons could be seen inside wearing such attire. This type of discrimination was hard for many to believe. But it happens. The AADM makes such injustice known in our town, and they mobilize people to do something about it. A new ordinance making those “dress codes” illegal, pushed forward by ADDM, is now law. I am grateful for their friendship and their leadership here in Athens. And when I first floated the idea of “Ohio” — two ways — a year ago, Knowa’s enthusiastic willingness to tackle such an out-there idea was key to making it happen. Thank you, brother.

Claire Campbell and Ishues. (Photos by Daniel Borremans)

Mokah told me this.

"Music is a powerful force. The Athens in Harmony concert of duets is an electrifying and refreshing experience for many who attend the event,” she said. “Each year my husband Knowa and I look forward to co-producing this show, because we're bringing people together and using music to break racial barriers. When I look into the crowd, I see many smiling faces and a strong current of hope, and it inspires me to continue my activism work. In an effort to improve race relations, I encourage people to 'step outside their comfort zone,' and we have set an example each year by co-hosting in the past with the chief of police in Athens and most recently with a chaplain who works for the police force. I have protested various policing shootings and social injustices, but Athens in Harmony gives me and many others an opportunity to heal and stand in solidarity.”

I keep thinking back on so many of the people in the Foundry that night. They do the real work every day — the work of racial reconciliation, healing, social justice, and education that underpins our society. They are teachers, principals, social workers, counselors, coaches, mentors, volunteers, Local School Governance Team members, school psychologists, nurses, librarians, organizers, mediators. They devote their lives and careers to helping others. They make our country better for everybody, not just the privileged few.  

And I continue to draw my inspiration from three people — not only on MLK Weekend, but every day:

The Rev. Dr. William Barber, the North Carolina pastor and author of The Third Reconstruction, who calls for “fusion politics,” blacks and whites working together toward a common goal. It’s the only way anything monumental has happened over the last century in America.

Justice Thurgood Marshall and his words on school integration: “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together.” Those words come from his dissent in Milliken v. Bradley, 1963, seven years before Athens finally consolidated its black and white high schools into Clarke Central High in 1970, the same year of the Kent State massacre and Neil’s original “Ohio.”

And finally, Athenian Eve Marie Carson: "Learn from every single being, experience, and moment what joy it is to search for lessons and goodness and enthusiasm in others.”

A good time was had by all at Athens in Harmony. Meanwhile, the work continues. And I think all of us can do more and better.