According to the journalist and activist Van Jones, Americans have been “engaging with the nightmare and not pursuing the dream.”
The host of CNN’s The Messy Truth is traveling the country for his We Rise Tour, and Thursday night, he stopped at the Fillmore Philadelphia for a nearly three-hour event that was equal parts concert and discussion about the current American political and social climate.
Jones said he was moved to take action because of the election of Donald Trump last November. When it was announced that Trump would become the 45th president, Jones famously responded on live TV, saying the election results were a “white-lash.”
The 10-city outing, a partnership between Jones and Fusion TV, is powered by the #LoveArmy movement, with the mission of starting conversations that tackle mass incarceration and recognize common goals among people “in order to increase dialogue and affect change.”
On Thursday night, Jones tapped activists and artists to take part in Philadelphia’s conversation.
“They call it resistance,” Jones said before the event. “I call it revival.”
It was not only a political revival, he said, but an artistic one.
“We underestimate our artists all the time,” said Jones. They “can tell the truth more than our political leaders can. Our political leaders are, by design, cut off to the truth.”
What artist did he choose for Philly?
North Philly rapper Meek Mill.
Mill stepped onstage and opened up about his 2008 drug and gun conviction in Philadelphia. The 30-year-old artist has five years of probation left, and he’s required to live in Philadelphia but can tour. Still, there are restrictions.
“I still have to ask another adult if I can take my son to Dorney Park,” he told the audience.
Mill talked about the post-traumatic stress that people face living in violent inner-city neighborhoods, admitting he used to carry a gun around in his late teens as a means of protection. Areas in North and South Philly, he said were like war zones, except there is no rehabilitation.
“Where we come from,” he said, “we don’t get that. And we see [violence] every day.”
Mill also talked about the trauma of solitary confinement, something he said he experienced firsthand in Pennsylvania. He said he spent 23 hours in one room for months.
“I was having a mental fight with myself,” he said.
“I watch kids sign their lives away to public defenders because no one has money for lawyers,” Mill said. He looked at Jones and said, “Stand on the corner with us for a week, and you might go to jail.”
Mill, who released his third studio album, Wins and Losses, last month, told the crowd it has a song with a particular message he wanted to emphasize: “Young Black America,” touching on the residual impact of slavery, on which Mill raps that street life is “all guns, no glory.”
“I got some ignorant music sometimes,” he said, “ but I always feel obligated to have an eye-opening [track] to tell these kids the truth.”
Before Mill’s appearance, We Rise kicked off with the Ohio comedian David Arnold, who declared that he’d stopped watching Shonda Rhimes’ TV shows because the White House is more entertaining. There was also a one-on-one interview between juvenile justice reformer Adam Foss and Fusion TV’s Kimberly Brooks. They discussed the role prosecutors play in the criminal justice system.
“We are wasting genius in prison,” Jones told the audience before screening a video made by inmates that showcased the musical and storytelling abilities of U.S. prisoners.
Jade Elder-Wilkerson, 19, was in the audience and described the evening as an “energy exchange.” One of her biggest takeaways, she said, was that “mass incarceration is bigger than the people in the cells; it’s the idea of a natural order.”
Jones maintained that people should not feel defeated by Trump’s presidency. “We can do a lot more than complain about one man’s Twitter fixation,” he said.
And as he’s been touring the country, said Jones, “each show feels more right.”
Proceeds from the We Rise Tour will go to Dream Corps, a nonprofit organization founded by Jones that supports initiatives that “reshape ‘what’s possible’ in the field of social justice.”
Jones capped the night with a testimony of his own. Like Mill, he said, he too spent years in a drug-filled environment surrounded by addicts. It was called Yale University. The Ivy League school had a rehabilitation center on campus to serve its populace, while people of color and the poor were getting arrested for drug crimes just blocks away.
The last few months, Jones said, have been rough for him because of the political climate. Though everyone else could turn off the TV, Jones — working for a cable news network — could not, and he longed to reconnect. He needed to “be with real people again,” he said.
“When has it ever been easy being us?” he asked rhetorically, referring to being a person of color or anyone who is transgender or an immigrant. As a ninth-generation black American, Jones said, he is “the first person in my family born with all of his rights recognized.” What he doesn’t want, he said, is for people to succumb to defeatism, a message that lingered after We Rise’s conclusion.
Jones “gave us hope and marching orders,” said Tariq Fladger, 28, “to follow your dreams and make a positive impact.”
“Without you having the courage to be who you were born to be, we are screwed,” Jones told Thursday’s crowd, which included Fladger. “I’m not worried about Donald Trump. I’m worried about you.”