Mike Reed says summer in Chicago means two things: music festivals and gun violence.
“It’s kind of a brain fuck,” says Reed, who’s not just a drummer, promoter, and venue owner but also the founding director of the Pitchfork Music Festival. Because last year’s spike in shootings contributed to the city’s highest murder tally in nearly two decades, this year the festival is acknowledging Chicago’s gun violence—and trying to raise awareness of organizations that are doing something about it.
Pitchfork has joined an initiative called Beats Over Bullets (often styled “Beats > Bullets”), a two-pronged partnership with Chicago organization Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK) and national nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. As part of the initiative, the festival encourages attendees and artists to participate in the Wear Orange campaign, a movement born from the 2013 murder of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old King College Prep student shot in a Kenwood park one week after performing at Obama’s second inauguration.
The Wear Orange campaign emerged two years ago in collaboration with Everytown, says Nza-Ari Khepra, a friend of Pendleton’s who cofounded the youth-led group Project Orange Tree after her murder to discuss the structural causes of the city’s epidemic of shootings. Everytown, which advocates for gun control and violence prevention, has designated June 2—Pendleton’s birthday—as National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
“Orange came from the color hunters wear when they go hunting, and the idea that it’s the safety color—the color they use to show they’re not the target,” explains Khepra, cocreator of Wear Orange.
Everytown press secretary Taylor Maxwell says that during Pitchfork the jumbotrons in Union Park will play a clip of a collaborative film made by Pendleton’s parents and the Wear Orange movement. Festgoers can text an onscreen number to learn what they can do to help mitigate the complex problem of gun violence, which feels horrifically intractable to many Chicagoans.
Volunteers will table at Pitchfork to represent the nonprofits involved in Beats Over Bullets and help people learn how to get involved. Maxwell says Everytown decided in 2017 to expand into more music festivals to try to reach a younger audience. Several other local events—among them the North Coast Music Festival, Mamby on the Beach, Ruido Fest, and Riot Fest—have signed on with Beats Over Bullets.
Pitchfork has historically encouraged people who buy its VIP passes to donate to a local charity chosen by the festival (last year it raised money for voter-registration efforts), but this year Reed says he approached outgoing Pitchfork president Chris Kaskie about doing something more. Kaskie suggested partnering with MASK, founded by Tamar Manasseh in 2015 after the shooting death of 34-year-old Lucille Barnes in Englewood. The group consists of volunteers who’ve pushed back against violence by forming a kind of block club and neighborhood patrol; they post up outdoors, grilling hot dogs, interacting with children and families, and making it clear to everyone that they’ve got their eyes peeled.
After Pitchfork settled on MASK as its cause, Reed says, Everytown reached out and offered to partner with the festival. Reed and Kaskie were initially hesitant to get involved with a nationwide organization, but they worked with Everytown to find a way to tie together the local and the national.
“This is the first time, and in a massive way, that we’ve gone into something with more of a national purview,” Kaskie says. “We feel like we’re in a position where, having something like a festival, we need to be utilizing it for something good in the community.”
Beats Over Bullets has made fund-raising a relatively small component of its work, Reed says, because what Pitchfork does best is promote. By using its festival and website to expose new audiences to MASK, Everytown, and the Wear Orange movement, Pitchfork can do something for these nonprofits that they’d have a hard time doing for themselves.
MASK communications director Sarah Ryan also appreciates the moral support. “Having Pitchfork put us out there really tells us and the people frequently left behind in this city that we haven’t been forgotten—there are other people who are a part of the city, as Pitchfork is, who want to try to help,” she says. Ryan is likewise impressed with the festival’s willingness to openly support advocacy work that could raise hackles in the pro-gun community. According to Kaskie, festival organizers didn’t even consider the contentious politics around guns and gun violence when making the decision.
Of course, raising awareness is just step one—solutions can seem terribly far away, especially considering the myriad factors that cause gun violence. Maxwell says she understands why so many people feel hopeless about the problem.
“What we know from doing this work is there are solutions that can make a huge difference,” she says. “Even in states where you might be frustrated with folks in the statehouse, you’re able to make progress on this issue by calling legislators and speaking out. And I do want young people to know that message.”
Because Beats Over Bullets depends on fans and artists to pick up its message and run with it, nobody can say yet whether it’s a worthwhile initiative. Kaskie and Reed acknowledge that they don’t know how or even if anyone at Pitchfork will get involved on the ground.
Khepra says she appreciates Pitchfork’s efforts either way, given how easy it usually is for people partying at a music festival to ignore gun violence—especially when it’s not already their day-to-day concern. For viable solutions to emerge, the problem needs to be on people’s minds, and that’s what she hopes Beats Over Bullets will accomplish.
“It can’t just be the people on the south side of Chicago who want to change gun violence. It can’t just be people at Sandy Hook or related to Sandy Hook who want to solve the problem,” Khepra says. “It can’t be a select group trying to solve it. It needs to be a bunch of people putting their heads together.” v