By Ricky O’Bannon

Tuesday afternoon in northwest Baltimore, a steady stream of protestors and media walked up North Avenue to reach the center of the day’s protests stemming from the death of Freddie Gray, where a line of police in riot gear backed by the National Guard stood near a destroyed CVS store that became a symbolic gathering place overnight.

As protesters and onlookers passed by, Evangelist C. Hillman sat on the front steps of her row home with a Bible and box of mangos, singing into her PA system just a few blocks from where traffic was stopped by the crowd.

Hillman has lived in her North Avenue home for 30 years. She regularly preaches and sings on those steps as part of her work with Inner Court Ministries, often talking to and sometimes reaching those struggling with drugs. On Monday while riots and looting raged outside her home, Hillman said she was inside praying, but she wanted to be back on the streets Tuesday with her songs and prayers for her neighbors.

Hillman 1
Evangelist C. Hillman singing outside her North Avenue 
home down 
the road from Tuesday protests.

“No matter what state you're in, music is something that reaches the soul,” she said.

Passersby stop, smile and talk to Hillman between gospel verses. Her songs are regularly drowned out by the drone of police, news or military helicopters circling overhead, but Hillman continues unfazed.

“The neighborhood might not be like it used to be, but I'm going to stay right here, and I'm going sing and pray for these people that God will touch their lives,” Hillman said. “The president might be a good man, but he can’t help us. The [Congress] can not help us even if they try to do good — but one touch from God, one song from God or a verse from a song can do a lot for a man.”

Since Saturday’s protest, music has often taken on added meaning in Charm City. In some cases — like with the drum line and jazz musicians who played for protestors on Tuesday — music can serve to bond the crowd together and be creative and productive piece in a protest. In other cases it has served as a call for peace and healing, like it did when more than a hundred clergy marched through west Baltimore Monday night singing and praying for an end to the ongoing violence and looting.

On Sunday, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society held its Quest for Peace concert, featuring works like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and Arvo Pärt's Da pacem Domine as well as post-concert “choral conversation” about the role of arts in building peace with Director Tom Hall and Chic Dambach, who previously served as president and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

The concert was scheduled months ago, and while the topic of music’s role in fostering peace might have been planned to explore music as a form of diplomacy — like an upcoming trip by the Minnesota Orchestra to Cuba or a pair of Pittsburgh classical musicians who will be the first Americans to perform in Iran since its revolution — Pärt’s or Vaughan Williams’ musical pleas for peace felt more like a personal issue for the Baltimore crowd than a topic of foreign affairs.

Hall addressed that feeling head-on saying that the day after mostly peaceful protests on Saturday ended with some violence was the perfect day to make a musical call for peace, and he also told the audience it is important to remember that the vast majority of protestors Saturday were peaceful. That latter point was met by applause from the crowd and a few grumbles during intermission from a handful, but such are the conversations in Baltimore right now where friends, coworkers and neighbors often struggle to find consensus on the news of the day.

For a city in a declared state of emergency, there is an increased imperative that music serves the needs of its people during unrest. And for many those needs include a place to reflect, heal, find community or even find a positive distraction away from the competing narratives that do battle in the news and social media.

On Wednesday, Darin Atwater and the Soulful Symphony announced a May 10 concert for Protest, Hope, Healing and Common Ground as part of the #OneBaltimore initiative. The concert is divided into four sections featuring songs of protest, hope, healing and inspiration. The announcement states, “There are moments in history that call forth the gifts that we have been given. This is that moment!”

Peace Concert 1 Closeup Web
Marin Alsop conducting BSO musicians Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, several dozen Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians gathered outside the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to play a free concert for peace. Efforts to organize the concert, which was put together in less than 24 hours without rehearsal as a response to Monday’s unrest, were led by BSO oboist and co-chair of the orchestra’s players’ committee Michael Lisicky.

“I like to think that [music] is noncontroversial and just a way to get everybody together and allow us to step back and analyze what's going on,” he said.

Lisicky added that the city is in pain as it grapples with issues both new and long established, and he hoped music might provide an opportunity to reflect.

“We just played this concert and we have all these different people in the audience,” he said. “For that half hour people were able to stand here in a [declared] state of emergency and clear their head for a minute.”

BSO Music Director Marin Alsop said she hoped that concert would be one of several events aimed at building community with music.

“We want to involve our OrchKids and youth orchestra and reach out to the musicians of Peabody as well to bring everybody together to do a number of events both here and also in west Baltimore. Today showed that we can come together and share the healing power of music, which really transcends barriers,” Alsop said.

Without question, there is a lot of noise in Baltimore, but as Baltimoreans look for healing, progress and eventually peace, there is also music.