My Page: Celisse Henderson ‘Enough Is Enough’
The “Freedom” project started in July 2016. It was the week that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were both killed. It was horrific—it was a 10-day period of person after person being killed—and those two deaths, back to back, just felt like too much. It was so frustrating and disheartening and I said to myself: “I need to write something. I need to contribute in some way.” And I felt that the biggest contribution I could make was with my artistic voice. So I wrote the bones of “Freedom”—the chord changes and the lyrics—that week. (Really, I did most of it within a couple of hours that first day.) After that, I called a few friends to see if anyone could donate some studio time or film the project so that I could bootstrap it and donate the proceeds to a Black Lives Matter organization.
I tracked all the keys and some of the guitars—as well as programmed the drums— at my little apartment in New York. Then, I went into a studio with some better gear, recorded the rest of the guitars and sent the files to an incredible drummer, John Clancy, who added the acoustic stuff on top of it. Around the same time, Hunter Arnold—a Broadway producer who has also worked in television and film—called me and said, “Everything is so crazy in the world, and I always feel like you’re an artist who’s speaking directly to the times. Are you working on anything that I can help you with?” And I said, “You’re calling me at the exact right moment.” When he came on board, it became a bigger project—he brought in a camera crew and helped build this scrappy thing from the ground up. We started incorporating all of these news clips into the film and vetting different organizations to donate to. And then—after we’d see the footage of these horrible deaths in the media and there had been all this frustration and anger for a certain period of time—people went back to their lives. The crest started to fall, and it no longer felt like the right time to release this project.
I started thinking about the project again in late 2017 and early 2018. At that point, Trump was already in office; everything and everyone was under assault. Every marginalized community was on fire because of the administration. I started thinking about the broader picture—there are so many people in our country who feel frustrated and disheartened and saddened and don’t know what to do. It felt too overwhelming; I thought, “This couldn’t possibly effect change in a real way?”
But, in looking for different footage and photos to use in the video, I kept coming across all of these pictures from different civil rights protests. It was so interesting to see how so much has not changed. And I realized that change happens on the micro level, not the macro level. It’s person to person. So I decided to do this photo series in the streets of New York where I, along with a handful of volunteers, walked around the city with posters that said, “I can.” We would ask a person, “What is one simple thing that you could do today to fight against police brutality, racism, xenophobia, homophobia or the myriad other things happening in this country right now?” And I was so overwhelmed by all of these really incredible answers. For a lot of people, it came back to their own community, family or circle of friends. But, by the time we finished the majority of the project in late 2018 and early 2019, we were back in that place where it seemed that collectively—from a societal perspective—the crest had fallen once again.
When COVID-19 hit, there were so many waves of emotion. I had a really fun performance calendar planned and I’ve had an exciting few years. I’ve toured with Jon Batiste and worked with Trey Anastasio in Ghosts of the Forest. Trey really informed me as a musician, as a songwriter and, especially, as a guitarist. He’s always so available at any moment. Earlier this year, I also got a random Instagram message that led me to playing guitar with Lizzo on SNL. (It’s weird that Instagram now is legitimately a résumé of everything you’ve done.) I sent over some videos and they said, “Lizzo would love for you to play with her, honoring Sister Rosetta Tharpe and paying homage to where rockand-roll music came from.” And, I’m like, “This woman is my goddess—I actually have a tattoo of her on my left forearm.” So there was a period of actual mourning and sadness about those gigs not happening—the loss of income. I had to figure out unemployment.
I know a lot of people have been doing online concerts, but I wasn’t at a place where I felt like I could authentically show up and perform at that moment. I needed a minute to process, a minute to re-evaluate.
But, when George Floyd, Tony McDade and Nina Pop were killed, it lit a fire in me creatively. I just said, “Enough is enough. We have this project— this is the time, even though I’ve never even performed this song live.” I really wanted to release “Freedom” the right way and, more than ever, it just felt like the perfect time. Especially as a Black artist, it gave me a really clear path of where I should go in the creative space. We went back to the video, made a few little edits and then just released “Freedom.” Sadly, so much from 2016 had not changed. It took four years for everything to come together— for the message to come together. Hopefully, it will really speak to people. Seeing footage of people around the world protesting has been so energizing, exciting and inspiring. I really want to believe that this time will be different.
Singer, guitarist and actress Celisse Henderson released the song and video for “Freedom” in June. She has performed with a range of artists throughout her multifaceted career, including Melissa Etheridge, Joss Stone, Macy Gray, Lizzo, Mariah Carey and Phish.