NEW YORK, NEW YORK ― The Violin Channel recently caught up with Juilliard School students Leerone Hakami and Lauren Siess – who were both actively involved in the Westboro Baptist Church counter-protest earlier this month, outside the New York City conservatory.
In a VC-exclusive blog, Leerone and Lauren talk us through their experience at the rally, and why they felt it was important to take a personal stance against the infamous Kansas-based religious hate group.
— Westboro Baptist (@WBCSaysRepent) November 3, 2016
“Now more than ever we are realizing our position as artists to conquer hate with love. A little cliche but painfully relevant, Leonard Bernstein once said “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before,” and the two of us could not resonate more with this concept. Upon hearing about the Westboro Baptist Church protesting our school for enriching the “vanity called ‘The Arts,’” us and our school community realized that we could not let this go unnoticed. The Westboro Baptist Church is an extremist church known for hate speech against the LQBT community, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, soldiers, politicians, and the media- amongst many other groups. This affected us personally, as us, our friends, and families all fall under various of these groups; as artists, and simply as members of our community, we felt obligated to share our love for our art and community in light of the hate being thrown back at us.
The entire day leading up to the protest, we watched as our school community came together via social media, messages, etc. to find a creative, peaceful way to respond to the upcoming protest. Various Facebook groups were formed, including “God Loves Jazz,” and “Protest of Love.” One of our friends, composition major Will Healy, even arranged a version of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” cleverly titling it “Rick Rolling the Westboro Baptist Church.” Us students were full excitement, prepared to shower the protesters with love for our school and our art forms.
The morning of the protest, the two of us arrived at school early at 7:45 AM, entering a scene of passionate artists, prepared to look at this as a performance opportunity. In front of our school entrance doors stood our school administrators, nervously monitoring for the safety of their students with the utmost expression of care in their eyes. With this in mind, we participated in a peaceful counter-protest in an allotted space directly across the three Westboro protestors. While the west side of the building had signs stating “repent or perish,” the east side had signs stating “Hell must be fabulous.” The energy was excited and hopeful, and we couldn’t wait to be a part of it. We immediately took out our instruments, recruited a few other friends to do the same, and began playing Will Healy’s “Rick Rolling the Westboro Baptist Church.” The responses of fellow students, passerby’s, and other members of the counter-protest were incredibly positive and rewarding. We ended up playing various songs ranging from “Amazing Grace” to “Hava Nagila” to even Lady Gaga for a full hour, completely forgetting and drowning out the hateful messages from down the street. Even inside our school building, a group of Juilliard students were peacefully playing music to drown out hateful rhetoric.
The amount of joy and unity this protest unintentionally brought us is ineffable. Our school and entire artistic community united: Juilliard jazz students, classical Juilliard musicians, and even singers from Laguardia High School. As Rick Rolling is generally used as an internet prank that causes for a Rick Astley’s music video to unexpectedly pop up on one’s computer screen, Will’s idea for us to “Rick Roll” turned a hateful event into a humorous one (go Will!). To an atmosphere of hate, our unexpected performance fostered unity, smiles, and art.
– Leerone and Lauren”