Lee England, Jr.’s We The People opens with a serene orchestral vibe that kind of sounds like the beginning of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. From there, it goes into a mélange of wind, trees and surf before moving into a deep cello melody that introduces the first line of verse: “They’re killing us in the streets.”
The ensuing poetry describes how America’s widely celebrated promise of freedom has never reached African Americans. Accompanied by gospel, hip-hop and classical music styling, it touches a theme that spans generations.
England Jr. was scheduled to perform We The People during President-elect Biden’s inauguration today, but the threat of Alt. right-wing domestic terrorism forced organizers to cancel. Nevertheless, the Waukegan-born, Southern Illinois grad known as “The Soul Violinist” holds nothing against the reckless behavior of so-called patriots who attacked the Capitol building, and came within minutes of hurting Vice President Mike Pence on January 6.
“They are loved, regardless,” he says. “At the end of the day, if there’s no love, there’s no moving forward. You can’t have peace without love.”
England Jr. wrote We The People in 2015. Provoked by the specter of innocent Black lives being murdered by police, he decided that it was “something that needed to be said.”
“It was just a question: who is the Constitution is talking about?” he explains. “We’re not getting a Constitutionally legal shake as African Americans. I don’t want to rip the Constitution up and I don’t want to create anarchy and I don’t want to point the finger. The whole thing is a conversation about the division, but at the end of the day we’re more similar than different — Can’t you see through colored eyes that every palm is colored white?”
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His multicultural inspiration transcends music, according to Chicago composer andSlang Music Group founder Vince Lawrence, who plays multiple roles on the team helping to complete England Jr.’s upcoming album, A Guidebook for a Gentleman.
“You don’t think about classical music as Black music, but when you hear Lee’s music, you can hear the soul,” says Vince Lawrence. “He lays bare the truth in violin.”
England Jr.’s other admirers include Quincy Jones, Michael Jordan, Bono, Elton John, and Sean “Diddy” Combs, who created a “non-traditional” role for him in the 2009 season of MTV’s Making His Band. A renowned violinist, he surprised his fans by rapping on “We The People,” but the high-note purity and occasional scratch in his voice immediately makes it worth hearing.
I just want to open up a conversation with the nation ‘bout some issues that I’m facing even though I ain’t create’m, are among the lines he sings.
In 2020, England Jr. was momentarily overwhelmed by the assaults on Black lives that have continued since he wrote the song. “It put me into a space where I literally could not create,” he recalls. “I felt like the world outside was on fire.”
Unsure if he should be “protesting or taking a stand or being a thought leader,” he ultimately decided to continue sharing his musical gift because, during times of turmoil, he says “it brings people together and it creates peace.”
Then — while leading a peaceful violin vigil for the memory of Elijah McClain this summer — he and several participants were tear-gassed by police wearing riot gear in Aurora, Colorado. A few months later, the nation wondered just how many times a Caucasian right-winger can assault a police officer before getting arrested.
The scenario fuels England Jr.’s passion to thrive.
“To succeed in a world that is not really built for us to succeed, to know that today could really be my last day, to be able to see the progression of my people from being in chains to making culture that enlivens the whole world, it’s like we’re the cool kids,” he says. “We’re bound by prejudice, but it’s a privilege to be able to create and give and still love in the midst of these circumstances.”
Daniel L. Patton is a veteran journalist who covers the Chicago landscape of advertising, music, people and more.