FLINT, Mich. — By the time Stevie Wonder shuffled onstage, helped along by Janelle Monae, Sunday’s #JusticeForFlint benefit concert was entering its fifth hour, so it would have been reasonable for audience fatigue to have set in. Instead, the elegant theater in this stricken city shook with more delight than most of these residents had seen in all the months since it became synonymous with poisoned water and government indifference.
Many other stars — from “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett and “Creed” director Ryan Coogler to Grammy nominees Monae and Musiq Soulchild — were on the bill for the hastily arranged event, but Wonder caught wind of it while in Detroit and came up while the show was in progress, surprising even the organizers.
“I’m too close to be so far away, and so I’m here in support,” Wonder said. Then he sang “Love’s in Need of Today” and, with Monae, “Higher Ground.”
Organizers insisted they were not trying to counterprogram the Academy Awards or its all-white acting nominees, but the live-streamed #JusticeForFlint gave the Oscars serious competition in the night’s hashtags on Twitter.
“For us, this is not a hashtag,” Smollett told the packed crowd of 2,000 fans, most of them Flint-area natives attending for free. “This is so much more. We stand with you. We may not be residents of Flint, but we are Flint, Michigan.”
Then he launched, appropriately, into “Empire’s” defiant anthem “I Am a Conqueror” and surprised the crowd by bringing an unbilled Estelle out to sing with him.
Debate continues to rage from this majority-black postindustrial city to the halls of Congress over whether to replace all the lead pipes in the city or just bolster the pipes’ internal corrosion controls. But meanwhile the water is still currently not considered safe to drink, and this community of 100,000 is largely relying on donated bottled water or faucet-mounted filters.
The matter has become a major political scandal because the decision to switch the water’s source to the polluted Flint River was made while the Flint City Council’s authority had been superseded by an all-powerful emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
For those reasons, there was a clear political bent to the proceedings, with Wonder in particular declaring that Snyder should be ousted from office.
“If you come to my show and the music is off, the music director must be fired,” the star said.
The show offered a vast array of African American performers — rappers, R&B singers, pop divas, spoken-word artists, tap dancers and quiet-storm musicians — but the entertainment was spiked by live testimonials of how the water problem had impacted residents.
Those included Nakiya Wakes, who blames the miscarriage of her twins as well as the sudden behavioral problems of her 6-year-old son on the lead poisoning. A quartet of Flint children described how their school hadn’t stopped them from drinking unfiltered tap water until just this month and now sells bottled water to its students.
Another small boy told the crowd, “I would like to say it’s not fun taking a shower with baby wipes.”
As a fundraiser, the event was less than a blockbuster. Despite the impressive talent lineup and the thousands of people both discussing the event on social media and watching it on the Sean “Diddy’ Combs-owned Revolt.tv, organizers had raised about $80,000 from about 2,000 donors by the end of the marathon production. That sum did rise significantly as “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, who attended but did not appear onstage, rallied people on Twitter to help them hit $100,000. The final total for the night was $145,000 from about 3,000 donors.
Nonetheless, as a treat for hard-hit Flint, the evening was an unparalleled success.
“This is the best medicine for us right here, right now,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician whose evidence of elevated levels of lead in local kids’ blood forced authorities to take the issue seriously. “You are giving us music, you are giving us laughter, you are giving us hope, you are giving us love. I can’t imagine spending Oscar night anywhere else but here.”
As emcee, comedian Hannibal Buress brought most of the laughs. He expressed comic bafflement that the front-desk clerk at his Flint hotel didn’t bother to warn him about the lead-tainted water.
“She don’t say anything,” he cried to laughter. “Don’t you think they ought to tell people, uh, the water, it’s poison?” Later he quipped of the water disaster, “This is the only way to get people to move to Detroit!”
Some moments were both on-the-nose and effective, such as Ledisi’s soulful rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or having “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jesse Williams, who plays a surgeon, introducing Hanna-Attisha.
What the event was not, DuVernay and others said, was a reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
Hollywood “happens to be my and Ryan [Coogler]’s world, but when it came up that this was a possible date that worked for everyone else, it felt wrong to say, ‘Hey guys, we can’t do that date, there’s something happening in L.A.,’ ” said DuVernay, who last year became the first black woman to direct a film nominated for best picture. “There are other things going on in the world, and this is one of them.”
Others expressed concern that the attention would be fleeting. “I don’t know what will come of this, but it keeps Flint in the press spotlight,” said Flint native Doris Patrick, 65, who blames her recent bladder and kidney problems on the water. “I do worry that the celebrities are just here for the notoriety. Once they’re gone what happens then?”