Now thousands fell silent en masse, almost immediately. Swinging her hair over her shoulder, Arianna Evans, a college student from Maryland, warned anyone hoping to loot and cause destruction to go away. The evening was and would remain peaceful, she vowed: “We will flush you out,” she told would-be troublemakers.
Then she handed the mic to Kenny Sway, a D.C. musician. He asked the still-silent and docile crowd to sit cross-legged, raise their cellphones and turn on the flashlights. With the sun setting over his right shoulder, Sway took a deep breath and issued a hopeful plea: “Please,” he said to thousands, “sing this song with me.”
Then he bent to a boombox, and — as the familiar strains of Bill Withers’s “Lean On Me” began to fill the air — he opened his mouth wide.
Some - times in my life, we all have pain …
We all have sorrow …
It was Sway’s first time performing in front of a large group of people — or performing for anyone in person — since the coronavirus shut down society, canceling many big events he had planned. Sway has been performing in the District for about a half-decade and has snagged gigs opening for national names in massive venues. But even as his star rose, he always kept performing in the streets, too, because he knows many people cannot afford tickets to snazzy concerts.
“I bring the music,” Sway said, “to them.”
He is well-known in the District for performing Adele outside the Chinatown Metro. Once, his serenading of a Stage IV cancer patient outside her home caused her to rise from her sickbed and begin dancing. Another time, he went viral online for crooning Whitney Houston’s “I Will Love You” to his daughter on the streets of Chinatown.
The virus had ended all that, although Sway had managed to keep himself afloat financially by performing online and accepting donations. Wednesday marked his first time really leaving his home in Hyattsville, Md., where the 28-year-old lives with his mother and 3-year-old daughter.
He had been scared to come, both because of the risk of infection and because he had seen the way peaceful protests in the nation’s capital degenerated into rioting and looting over the past five days.
But it was exactly that fear that drove him to grab his microphone and speakers and drive out anyway to the city he loves. He had carefully observed the late-night violence, and he thought he knew how to end it — knew what the movement lacked.
“I had to really watch and see, ‘What are they missing?’” Sway said. “And it was music.”
On Wednesday, as his voice soared into the balmy evening air, the intersection of 16th and I streets transformed into a waving sea of lights, competing with the amber rays of the setting sun. Thousands of voices joined his on every chorus.
Evans sang along, too, thrilled it had all come together. She had met Sway just hours before at an earlier Capitol Hill protest. But they had become close enough, in just a few hours, that Sway felt comfortable letting her introduce him. The two had realized they shared a common goal: Evans was determined to show people the real essence of these protests, and to showcase black art and love and passion, if she could.
“That,” she said, “is what this protest is all about.”
Now, somehow, the pair were controlling the crowd.
“We all need somebody to leeee-ean on,” Sway sang, lofting the last syllable impossibly high, and thousands cheered.
The evening wound down soon after that, without a single significant act of violence or truly tense confrontation between protesters and police. It was the first time in nearly a week that D.C. went to sleep untroubled by fires, or window-smashing, or the sharp crack of police flash grenades, or the acrid whiff of smoke canisters.
“Music is a universal thing, whether you’re black, white, Asian, a police officer, a not-police officer,” Sway said. “And that’s what people needed to understand yesterday.”
He plans to keep attending the demonstrations as long as he is needed to calm the city — the city he loves for its food and people, the city he knows is so much better than how it has been portrayed in recent days.
Sway knows there will be yelling, and anger, in days to come. But there will be music, too.