by Jocelyn Jane Cox
In this current political enviroment filled with rancor and disagreement, it’s good to know that people are also coming together. Five local bands played in the name of unity at Nyack’s First Reformed Church on Jan 14 with all proceeds benefiting Planned Parenthood and Helping Hands. I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of this Unity Concert that featured Sammy Cannillo, Hold On, Caulfield, The Foxfires, Who Are They and The BeStills. It was more than just uplifting. It gave me hope.
As Christian Diana of The Foxfires said, “The show was filled with people who were positive and supportive. The energy of the room was very synchronized. Sometimes shows can be stressful, but there was no stress with this; the spirit of unity seemed to take over.”
Can A Concert Promote Unity?
When I asked Sherjan Ahmad, one of the organizers of the event and the lead singer of the BeStills, why he helped to put this together, he said, “After the election I sensed a lot of negativity and polarization in our country and our community. . . . I said to myself, ‘What can I do in my community that can help bring some healing and unite us during these divisive times?’” He met with Pastor John Vandenoever, who is a guitar player himself and who was more than happy to help. “Things began to fall into place. . . . It’s a small step we’re taking to build awareness for celebrating diversity. America has always been a cultural melting pot and that’s one of its biggest strengths. This is our way of strengthening community through music.”
Ahmad, who is just 23 years old, has a stage presence and wisdom well beyond his years. He was born in Pakistan but has lived in Rockland County since 2002. He went to South Orangetown Middle School, Tappan Zee High School, and Purchase College. He told me that the first few years in the United States were tough because it was right after 9/11. “I was constantly bullied in school, kids would not give me a seat on the bus, they’d call me nasty names such as ‘Terrorist’ and ‘Osama’s son.’ I remember coming home one day, crying to my mom and telling her that ‘I don’t want to live here anymore, I don’t belong here.’ She told me to be strong and that things will get better if you try to build bridges. She was right because when I was 12 my dad bought me a guitar and that helped me share my passions, dreams, and stories with my classmates and that changed adversity to acceptance.”
This event was a direct and more public extension of that bridge-building his mother suggested 15 years ago.
Ahmad said that he, along with co-organizer Tyler Lamphere, of Hold On, Caulfield, put together this list of bands based on their having done charitable work in the past. “Most importantly, their music reflects the message of love and community.”
When my friend and I walked in, the BeStills were just taking the stage. Their music is about hope and love. It’s upbeat and combines the influences of Coldplay, U2, Fleetwood Mac, Radiohead, and The Beatles. One song they performed, “Hearts Don’t Break,” begins, “Young hearts trying to see the light/But there’s darkness everywhere. You fall hard, you never give up / They keep pushing you away.”
Between sets, Ahmad was gracious, and quoted Martin Luther King. Ahmad describes his bandmates (pianist Albert Ahlf, drummer Taylor Simpson, bass player/vocalist Charlotte Harrow, rhythm guitar player Imraan Ahmad Khan) as his best friends. They grew up in the same town. “All of our paths crossed because of our love and passion for music. The unique thing about our band is that we’re very diverse in terms of our backgrounds, cultures, and musical tastes.”
One of the most powerful moments came at the very end of the show, when members from all of the bands, mostly 20-somethings, got on stage together to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” (pictured above). The song did the impossible: It made me hopeful.
A few days after the show, when I asked Ahmad how he thought it went, he said he was pleased not only by the amount of money that they raised but also the way people came together. He loved seeing all the other bands perform. They had to cancel the show the week before due to snow, and it started snowing and getting icy on the rescheduled night as well, but he said, “people still came out and they stayed until the end. One mother and daughter came up to me afterwards and said they had driven 40 minutes to get there and they were glad they did.”
Ahmad believes we can all bring some light to the world, that we can all bring small changes to our circles, whether we’re doctors or teachers or musicians. “If we do this,” he said, “little by little, it all adds up.”
These are wise words from this 23 year-old. And this kind of optimism and belief in unity? Completely contagious. Keep your eye out for all of these bands as they release records and perform locally and beyond. This is our country’s future, and it looks very promising.