A Defiant Pharrell Takes Two Knees At Charlottesville Unity Concert

Weeks after violent clashes in Virginia, tens of thousands of people joined in peaceful celebration.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. ― “Can’t nobody tell me what to do. If I wanna get on my knees right now for the people in my city, for the people in my state, that’s what that flag is for,” a fiery Pharrell Williams told a cheering crowd as he fell to both knees on stage at “A Concert for Charlottesville” on Sunday night.

Pharrell wasn’t the only performer to make a gesture of solidarity. Timberlake also knelt on stage, becoming the latest in a string of public figures to support a movement of peaceful protest led by NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick.

Billed as “an evening of music and unity,” the concert hosted by the Dave Matthews Band, which was formed in Charlottesville more than 25 years ago, drew tens of thousands to University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium more than a month after white supremacists descended upon the city.

Performers included Ariana Grande, Chris Stapleton, Brittany Howard, The Roots, Cage the Elephant, as well as surprise guests Chris Martin and Stevie Wonder.

Before the show, Dave Matthews asked for the world to rewrite Charlottesville’s narrative and refused to let the city he calls home be defined by the violent rallies that took place earlier this summer.

“People don’t just know just know Charlottesville, and now they know it for this ugly, disgusting, unforgivable display of hatred,” Matthews explained in a discussion with photographer Danny Clinch on Sunday night. “How do we make a noise that says, ’No, this is not what this place is, this is not what this part of the country is, this is not what this part of the world is and this is not what this world should be.’?”

In August, race-related violence claimed the lives of three people, including anti-racist demonstrator Heather Heyer, and injured several others. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, took the stage at the top of the Charlottesville concert to call for peaceful protests. After receiving a standing ovation from the crowd, Bro encouraged the audience and those watching at home to carry on her daughter’s legacy.

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, and Dave Matthews speak onstage at A Concert for Charlottesville.
Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, and Dave Matthews speak onstage at A Concert for Charlottesville.
Kevin Mazur via Getty Images

“I wish my daughter was here tonight with all of us. Tragically, because Heather stood bravely against racism and hatred, she was taken from us,” Bro said. “I’m here in her place to stand and sing with all of you as best I can.”

“Sing your hearts out. Feel the music and fill the void left by those we have lost,” she continued. “I will be right here with Heather singing.”

And so the crowd did, with a slew of performers inspiring the Charlottesville community with rousing sentiments about loving in the face of hatred and calling for unity in a time of deep divisiveness. Grande, who recently completed her world tour marked by both extreme violence and resilience, addressed her contemporaries in the audience.

“I want to say really quickly how proud I am to be part of a generation that’s is so passionate about creating a change and making things better.” Grande said. “Keep using your voices in making this a safer place for each other ... celebrate each other and our differences.”

Ariana Grande performs at A Concert for Charlottesville.
Ariana Grande performs at A Concert for Charlottesville.
Kevin Mazur via Getty Images

The university and larger Charlottesville community has grappled with the fallout from the rally ever since the events this summer, with thousands attending a peaceful candlelight vigil days after. Posters declaring “Hate Doesn’t Belong Here” appeared on dorm room doors and pillars around campus. The day before the concert, administrators hosted an open dialogue on race and inequity for students and faculty members involving more than 30 discussion sessions and four film screenings.

“You’re at a loss for words when you see this kind of hatred descend on your city,” University of Virginia junior Dylan Garcia told HuffPost. “The same streets I walk through every single day are where the horrific events unfolded. It’s not the same here. It’s unsettling.”

“We are a very progressive city and that’s not the ideology that we support,” he added. ”

The show encouraged attendees to make donations to a Concert for Charlottesville Fund organized by the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, which benefits victims and their families, first responders and “organizations devoted to the promotion of healing, unity and justice in the Charlottesville community and nationally.”

Admission to the concert was made free for members of the Charlottesville and University of Virginia communities through an online request process. Tickets, of course, were claimed quickly, with some reselling for upwards of $300 online.

A Concert For Charlottesville

The Dave Matthews Band and Stevie Wonder closed out the concert with a powerful call to action before breaking out into a rendition of “Imagine” and, of course, “Superstition.”

“I’ve seen people killing people in churches, mosques and synagogues. I’ve seen hate marching down the street disguised as a cry for equality,” Wonder said. “If I can see it, damnit, I know you can. But see it! Not with the eyes. Feel it in your spirit, in your soul. The question is, what are we gonna do about it? What are we gonna do about it to make a difference? We must be the difference.”

Clashes In Charlottesville