The performers set up instruments on the sidewalk around 8 a.m. Friday.
Outside A.M.E. Union Church at 16th and Jefferson streets in North Philadelphia, they commenced with three hours of songs and rhythms from east, west and central Africa.
The drums, bells and wooden xylophones drove some people to dance and others to celebrate or reflect.
Upon hearing it as she emerged from a limousine, a widow smiled and blew a kiss in their direction before being escorted into the church to bid her husband farewell.
“This is about thousands of people over thousands of years. You have to honor your ancestors. It’s a powerful thing,” performer Ogun Kemi would later say of why they played. “The only thing that’s left for us to do is love one another. All the other stuff, it’s just meaningless.”
Dr. Edward W. Robinson Jr.’s legacy
What was meaningful to hundreds of mourners who arrived by foot, motorcycle, bus and enough cars to fill surrounding North Philly streets and a lot stretching back to Willington Street was celebrating the life of the late Dr. Edward W. Robinson Jr.
Robinson, a longtime Germantown resident who was 94 years old when he succumbed to cancer June 13, is best described as a “Renaissance man.”
He made a mark in the worlds of business, education, civics and the arts, while also impacting the lives of relatives, friends and those he mentored.
Before heading inside for a viewing and funeral which most preferred to consider a celebration of life, “The Sound of Philadelphia” legend Kenny Gamble said Robinson’s efforts to inspire and empower African-Americans to understand their history left a lasting impression.
Gamble also drew parallels to problems still facing Philadelphia.
“Dr. Robinson had a tremendous impact on me and others. He helped African American people learn about their history, their ancestors, where we came from. That wasn’t done before him,” Gamble said, noting that Robinson infused African studies into the curriculum of the city’s public schools.
“He taught that we were not ‘slaves,’ but ‘captured people,'” Gamble continued. “Until we know that, understand that, we can’t solve the problems with violence in the community, we can’t solve the inconsistencies in education in our schools. We need to put back into the African American community what was taken out.”
A celebratory scene
Among the hundreds joining Gamble inside were City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Sheriff Jewel Williams and state Rep. Dwight Evans, who cited Robinson’s nephew, the late state Rep. David Richardson.
“He meant a lot for our growth and development as a people,” Evans said of Robinson. “Everyone here learned a lot from him.”
By 11 a.m., the sidewalk music had stopped and the pews were filled inside A.M.E. Union Church, where Robinson was a congregant.
As one performer loaded bata drums into the back of an Imhotep Institute Charter High School van, the strains of “Lift Every Voice And Sing” — the “Negro National Hymn” — were audible down the block.
The celebration of a life had begun.