Michael Scott, music minister at the Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, hadn’t seen the video that was making waves in his native city. That’s a bit odd, because he is featured prominently in it.
As Scott recalled in a phone interview, a photographer named Seamus Murphy started hanging out at the church late last fall, shooting pictures and videos. He asked Scott if his choir wanted to participate in a music video that he was making for a British singer named PJ Harvey.
“He was like, ‘The song is about community of hope,’ ” Scott remembers. “Just ‘community of hope.’ ”
Scott never got to meet Harvey, but the “community of hope” theme was one that resonated with Scott, who grew up in Southeast. He says he often listens to his pastor, Willie F. Wilson, preach about “buying property and the upkeep and preservation of our history and the rich history of the area.”
So Scott said yes, and taught his choir how to harmonize a few lines of the song. One was taken from the song’s title, “The Community of Hope.” The other, repeated again and again, was “They’re gonna put a Walmart here.
“I didn’t get that line,” Scott says. “I didn’t get it. I just thought maybe some songwriter was writing some other weird song.”
The video that resulted from Harvey and Murphy’s D.C. collaboration was released last week, unbeknownst to Scott. The choir director hadn’t heard that the song had become the subject of controversy, provoking reactions from city officials and music critics. He also didn’t know that a story by a Washington Post reporter who unwittingly gave Harvey a driving tour of the city had been viewed by thousands of readers.
So, we stayed on the line while Scott watched the video.
“Okay, this video is kinda like all over the place,” said Scott, who was in Miami for the weekend. “I’m highly confused as to what the message is.”
If the song is about a community of hope, he wondered, why did it feature images of people loitering and drinking shots of alcohol, “when there are so many positive things in this area?”
That’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by others. Former Washington mayor Vincent C. Gray said, “I will not dignify this inane composition with a response.” And D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) posted a Tweet saying, “I respect all artist forms of expression, but this song does not reflect Ward 7!”
It’s just before the two video’s two-minute mark when Scott shows up, rehearsing the song in an office with four members of his choir: Tia Singleton, Cherece Epps, Unique Bryant and LaSharon Johnson. The moments of a cappella harmonizing by the Union Temple choir are stirring, sincere and beautiful.
But Scott wishes their voices accompanied a different vision of Anacostia. “There are so many amazing things in the neighborhood. There is this all-star basketball game they do in Barry Farms. They’re about to build a Busboys and Poets. The Anacostia Arts Center is around the corner from the church,” he says. “There are so many great things and programs in the neighborhood.”
Scott remains confused about the Walmart line. In January, the company backed out of its plan to open a store in Southeast. But why, Scott wonders, does Harvey sing about it like it would’ve been a bad thing?
“A lot of people are disappointed,” Scott says. “Somebody has to build a Walmart. Somebody has to work in a Walmart. A Walmart means jobs.”