On the red carpet outside of New York’s Radio City Music Hall last night, a diverse group of stars including Garth Brooks, Wyclef Jean and Russell Simmons made their way past the blinding flashbulbs for an historic concert: The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation is $18 million shy of the $100 million needed to construct the MLK monument on the Washington, D.C. mall and, with tickets ranging from $150-$1,000 a pop, the star-studded Dream Concert would bring the dream of a King standing amongst the presidents closer to fruition.
When Diddy took the podium in a snappy white blazer, he solemnly quoted Dr. King, “We have guided missiles but misguided men,” before welcoming Robin Thicke, who breezed through “Lost Without You,” then turned over the mic to Joss Stone. A red-headed Stone appeared center stage in an iridescent green gown, barefoot, as usual, saying, “This is something I wrote, I hope you like it. Fingers crossed,” and she belted a slow, bluesy jam about putting the pieces back in place. Ryan Shaw joined Stone for an impressive duet of “A Change Is Gonna Come” that was sung like they truly believe it’s gonna come soon.
Next, a more seasoned duo took the stage — gospel favorites BeBe and CeCe Winans, who brought the hall to church with “I’ll Take You There.” Amens rang out through the crowd, and continued throughout the evening every time someone said a profound King quote, which was often. When five-time Grammy winner John Legend finished adjusting the microphone at his piano, he explained, “They wanted me to do ‘Ordinary People’ but I made a last-minute decision to change my song. A few years ago, I wrote a song called ‘Freedom Now.’ And it seemed more appropriate for tonight.” With an MLK photo swallowing up the stage on the backdrop behind him, Legend sang a rousing song about fighting for freedom. Sprinkled throughout Radio City, a few fists were firmly in the air.
When Cedric the Entertainer took the stage he attempted to “crank it up” by doing the Soulja Boy Superman dance before his hilarious stand-up set. “John Legend is that low-sodium music!” he joked. “That music make you wanna get your life together, get your credit right.” Cedric introduced Brooklyn’s own Talib Kweli, who confidently delivered “Hostile Gospel,” instructing the crowd to “Get your hands up!” though few did.
“Aw naw, they not energetic enough!” Ludacris scolded the crowd before taking the stage next. The cheers rose and Luda spat a fast and furious intro before breaking into his hit “Money Maker.” Babyface offered a rocked-out version of Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” then Garth Brooks appeared onstage. “It’s truly an honor to be here. I’m scared to death,” he admitted, sounding sweet and sincere in his signature cowboy hat. The crowd chuckled, and Brooks broke into the contemplative war cry “Abraham Martin & John,” then his gospel-country response to the 1992 L.A. riots, “We Shall Be Free.”
Soon, LL Cool J and Miss USA Rachel Smith were at the podium introducing Wyclef Jean, who immediately had the crowd clapping along. “Don’t clap, you’re throwing me off rhythm!” ‘Clef complained as he strummed his guitar, and everyone stopped. “Obaaama! Hillary Clinton! They got competition. Vote for meeee!” he sang as he opened his 2004 sleeper single “President.” “Bush don’t care about Iraq, he cares about the oil,” he rapped, and everybody cheered. Wyclef started rapping in Spanish, then French, and the crowd got on their feet for the first time, dancing and chanting along. In response, Wyclef did a full back flip.
Tony Award-winning actor Ben Vereen and gospel favorite Kirk Franklin next introduced Carlos Santana. “‘Victory is Won’ is a song I wrote for Desmond Tutu, Mr. Harry Belafonte, Mr. Nelson Mandela, and of course, Mr. Martin Luther King,” he said before jumping into an electrifying instrumental. Santana put a second guitar over his shoulder and played “Maria Maria” and “Smooth,” minus Product G&B and Rob Thomas, respectively.
Later, Usher stepped out, looking sharp in a gray blazer and crisp, white shirt, to introduce the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Her voice filled Radio City with “Respect,” ending with powerful pleas, “I don’t want much! I don’t want much! Just a little!” She then performed “Make Them Hear You,” a song about the civil rights movement, waved and strutted off the stage with assistance from an escort. “Yes, Lord, yes!” yelled a woman in the crowd who caught the spirit. “Let’s sing and pray in that old-time way!”
“Why do I feel the Holy Ghost right now, y’all?” asked Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. from the podium. “God is in the building!” Quincy Jones then took the stage to introduce Stevie Wonder, saying Martin Luther King could have been talking about Wonder when he said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Wonder entered and spoke his mind about how far we still have to go in the struggle for equality. “We have grown, but we have not grown so much that we have something like Jena Six! Do you think that Dr. King would be happy about now? I would say no,” Wonder stated firmly before playing “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” “Living for the City” and “Visions,” on which he was joined by India.Arie. Wonder topped things off with “Superstition” and his renowned “Happy Birthday,” the very song he used to help spearhead the fight to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official holiday in 1986. More than two decades later, it’s about time for a monument, and hopefully, for a movement.