Last Wednesday (November 8th), Toronto’s culturites and philanthropists were treated to an uplifting celebration of women, music and hope for the second annual Hope Rising! benefit concert in support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. The evening kicked off with a VIP reception (attended by notable figures like Jeanne Becker, Arlene Dickinson and Thandie Newton) where a total lifetime donation of $1 million by board member Richard Phillips was announced, CIBC committed a $1 million donation to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and the six-person Pan African Ensemble serenaded Lewis with Happy Birthday (the philanthropist turned 75 on Sunday).
CBC Q’s beloved Jian Ghomeshi hosted the concert and gave an opening speech heavy with references to Obama’s speech the evening before, including the President’s commitment to “an AIDS-free generation.” As Ghomeshi told the crowd, “the current face of HIV/AIDS is an African woman’s face,” with the most affected group being women between the ages of 18-24, many who are left without treatment and life-prolonging medication. Ghomeshi hailed Obama’s speech for its offering of hope rather then despair, quoting that “hope is that stubborn thing inside of us that exists, so long as we have the courage to keep fighting.” Ghomeshi jokingly thanked Obama for his opening act, but the theme resonated throughout the evening.
Dub-poet D’bi Young Anitafrika opened the musical portion of the evening, in a performance with Africa’s grandmothers and granddaughters, who told their powerful stories about the impact of HIV on their lives through song, while the older generation braided the younger’s hair.
Headliner Annie Lennox performed popular songs of times past during her six-song solo set, like No More I love You’s and Here Comes the Rain Again. In a touching tribute, she also played a song she wrote for the children living with HIV who have touched her in her aid efforts. The ballad, with its chorus, “I wish that all the kids like you could be like everyone,” was accompanied by an emotional video from one of Lennox’s mission trips. The singer’s dedication to the cause was reflected in her passion and school girl-like excitement that followed each song.
Next was a radiant Sarah McLaughlin, who treated the audience with a new song, which she called a “symbol of unity and hope rising,” with its lyrics, “Gonna push on through, pretty girl, the way we always do, pretty girl, got love on your side.” As we had hoped, she also delivered a powerful performance of her hit song Angel, which drove many audience members to tears.
Lewis himself was introduced by Hollywood fixture Thandie Newton, who spoke of her friendship with Lewis, calling him relentless and claiming that he “doesn’t pause.” Despite Obama’s optimism, Lewis cautioned that we are a long way from an AIDS-free generation and that many are still left without treatment, with women “the least responded to cohort in the entire pandemic.” With a general focus still on high-risk groups like homosexuals and drug users, not enough attention is paid to women when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
Lewis questioned why there aren’t more women in Africa sitting at the decision tables, or on the panels and commissions. He cited alarming statistics on the lack of representation of females today, from local committees in Africa to modern world events like the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS at 30 international symposium or the Thirty Years of AIDS event at the White House that featured a panel of 11, all of whom were men. Echoing the sentiment of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Lewis stressed the need to work to reverse this at the grassroots and community level.
Following Lewis’ speech was a colourful multi-instrument finale, starring Grammy Award-winning artist and iconic African figure Angelique Kidjo, who ended things on an energetic note, with a cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. She told the crowd that we are “here to celebrate beauty” and got the audience singing, chanting and dancing, followed by a dance-off on stage with the back-up performers. In a final performance, Lennox returned to the stage, where she was joined by McLaughlin and Kidjo for two crowd-pleasing classics, Sisters are Doing it for Themselves and Sweet Dreams, as well as another mass Happy Birthday for Stephen Lewis.
The evening raised $250,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. For those who missed the sold out event, the concert will be broadcast on CBC Radio One on the eve of World AIDS Day, Friday November 30th. The one-hour edited concert recording will also be available online at CBC’s Concerts on Demand.