Kristin Connor didn’t know an unborn child could get cancer. The successful business litigator was thirty-three weeks pregnant in 2001 when an ultrasound revealed a mass on her son’s tiny spine. Brandon was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at one month old. At age two, he was set to undergo a complex surgery to remove the tumor. But the day before the operation, a last-minute MRI showed nothing short of a miracle: The tumor had simply disappeared.
Now the executive director of Atlanta nonprofit CURE Childhood Cancer, Connor still has no explanation for her family’s happy ending. (Brandon is now fourteen and thriving.) But it was other families’ stories she couldn’t shake—like a friend whose child suffered thirty rounds of chemo and a leg amputation, only for the cancer to return weeks later. “I thought, ‘This is madness. We have to stop this madness.’”
She started pressing the American Cancer Society for more funding for pediatric cancers (the vast majority of national cancer research dollars go to adult forms). A mutual friend arranged a meeting with Tom Glavine’s wife, Chris; the Hall of Fame pitcher tapped Major League Baseball to raise $2 million for the cause. That feat earned Connor a job with CureSearch, a national childhood cancer nonprofit. A year and a half later, Atlanta’s CURE contacted her about its top post.
In her decade-long tenure, Connor, forty-seven, has furthered CURE’s mission of offering financial assistance, counseling, meals, and other support to affected families. But she has also built a research juggernaut. With the help of her board of directors, she has increased CURE’s annual investment from $200,000 to $2.5 million to recipients such as the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center at Vanderbilt University. Advances in these laboratories could lead to a 100 percent cure rate for childhood cancers in as soon as twenty years, Connor says. And that would let all families have their happy ending.
When she was five, Melissa Arasi sang her first solo in her family’s Cherokee County church. By twenty-one, the vocalist was teaching chorus to students just a few years younger than she at Walton High School in Marietta. Soon came a stint under Robert Shaw in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. It wasn’t long before Arasi was touring Europe and performing at Carnegie Hall. All the while, she maintained her work at Walton, even touring with her students in places like Paris’s Notre Dame.
In 2001, Arasi was tapped to supervise the Cobb County School District’s performing arts programs. It was a big opportunity, but it also meant she would be without a choir—which left her quite bereft. (“I cried for about two months every time I drove past the school,” she says.)
After earning her doctorate in music education from Georgia State University in 2006, Arasi knew she had to lead a chorus again. One day, she went on the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus website, and there it was: They were looking for a conductor to start a women’s chorus that would be their sister organization. “I looked at my husband and said, ‘This is my chorus! This is my chorus!’”
That was 2013. Today, Arasi, fifty, is artistic director of the Atlanta Women’s Chorus, a diverse group of about fifty-five women who give three concerts a year. Sure, there have been challenges in leading the nonprofit. For starters, she’s a straight woman leading a chorus that grew from the old Atlanta Feminist Women’s Chorus, a lesbian group. But Arasi has quickly won over any naysayers with her passion and charm. There’s also the juggle: She has the same day job at Cobb County Schools.
In fact, she’s nearing her thirtieth year with the county, where she supervises nearly 200 performing arts teachers. Arasi says she’s exhausted at the end of the day, but when she leads her chorus, she feels rejuvenated. “The interaction that happens is so unique and special that it’s really impossible to put into words,” she says. “It just feeds you.”
Atlantan RAHBI likens himself to Prince, and takes musical inspiration from artists as diverse as Grace Jones and Lady Gaga, the late Rick James, and gospel singers The Clark Sisters. His aim: To combust stereotypical ideals of black male artists and their music. This weekend, he opens for New Orleans bounce music queen Big Freedia at Atlanta’s first AFROPUNK Festival, an offshoot of the celebrated 10-year-old Brooklyn music event.
RAHBI landed the gig after the festival issued an open-call audition for new artists in Atlanta. In the past, he has opened for Erykah Badu, Bilal, and Janelle Monae, and his future plans are even grander. “In five years, I see myself touring consistently, releasing new albums, winning a Grammy Award, having a clothing line, doing cartoon voiceovers, and performing on Broadway.” Below, four more things to know about the up-and-coming artist:
He competed in AFROPUNK’s The Battle of the Bands to earn a spot in this year’s festival. Every spring, the festival issues an open call for new artists to submit audio and video for a chance to perform, and then the artists must encourage their fans to vote for them via social media. Those with the most votes have an opportunity to perform live in front of a panel of AFROPUNK representatives. “I had heard about AFROPUNK and wanted to be a part of this legendary festival that highlights the alternative black artist,” says RAHBI. “I got the most votes of any artist who competed in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York City!” Atlanta band Samurai Shotgun also competed and will be performing at the festival.
When he’s not on stage, he teaches musical theater. “I want to inspire kids to believe in themselves before they start thinking ‘boys do this and girls do that.’ I want to inspire them to be free and creative,” he says. RAHBI, who teaches at the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, also studied there as a kid. He continued doing musical theater in college at Georgia State University, where he received a degree in music management. He says those roots inspire his performances, which often include outrageous costumes and a stage full of actors.
Back in the mid-1990s, he was in a boy band called 4th Avenue that was signed to LaFace Records. Though the group had a single, “Going Crazy,” they never released a full album. Still, he says the experience taught him a lot about the music industry. “I saw how they told us ‘you’re going to sing the backgrounds, you’re going to sing the leads, you’re going to be the sexy one,’ that was me. They gave us [clothes] to wear, all of the songs were presented to us—you don’t get to think for yourself. They get you young before you know who you are.”
His EP, The Golden Child: Trimester 3…Hello World, drops on October 3. AFROPUNK attendees can expect to hear music from the new EP, which RAHBI promises will feel “just like your favorite song.” The performance will feature dancers, actors, his background singers (The Pretty Ladies), and Atlanta-based musicians The Band of Brothers. “The songs [reflect] my journey toward knowing that my life has purpose. Hello World is a rebirth of my self.”
I have been to Selma, Alabama, at least three dozen times. My father grew up there with his grandparents and a gaggle of cousins. For much of his childhood, his front yard was a fifty-acre cotton field, and it was not uncommon to see a chicken running around with its head cut off.
We visited our family there twice a year for most of my youth, but it only took my father telling me one story of being chased home by white men with bats and knives and hiding under a car in a junkyard, for me to understand why he left.
My childhood memories of Selma are rooted in visiting my great aunt Sarah in her yellow and blue trailer just off of Highway 80. Half of the place was pink and half was light blue—her two favorite colors. My cousins and I played outside catching lightning bugs, shooting firecrackers, playing in the dirt, and gnashing on frozen Kool-Aid in foam cups. Going to Selma was always an escape from the daily grind, primarily because of its emptiness.
There was no Target or Starbucks, and there still is not. Selma has one of a few things and not a whole lot of anything, except history. Every year there is a commemorative march and jubilee street festival and concert to honor the civil rights activists who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. This year’s fiftieth anniversary celebration brought tens of thousands of people from all over the world to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as demonstrators did five decades earlier.
On Saturday, March 6, 2015, I, along with tens of thousands of others, stood in a security check line for three hours only to stand in front of a Jumbotron for another two hours in order to hear President Barack Obama speak. Congressman John Lewis introduced the president; Lewis, who along with Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. marched for voting rights in 1965, said he never thought he would introduce the first African American president or be considered his hero.
Said President Obama in his speech, “Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting?”
Then, on Sunday, March 7, people ages eight to eighty filled Broad Street and the surrounding areas as they walked and stood for hours. The sleepy streets of a town that time forgot were filled with food vendors, T-shirt peddlers, foot soldiers, congressmen, and people from all around the world who wanted to be a part of history. Young people carried signs and wore T-shirts bearing the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe,” references to the recent deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, while chanting “No justice, no peace!” One group of Latino demonstrators chanted “Si se puede!” which means, “Yes we can.”
The march from Selma to Montgomery inspired people around the world to take their message to the streets. It is still inspiring movements such as the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. Marchers set up tent towns on the side of the road in 1965, just as occupiers set up tents in Central Park in 2011. These recent movements have been focused on creating and expanding opportunities for social mobility and economic prosperity, especially in communities of color.
Selma is a prime example of a place in need of economic help. Forty percent of the population lives below poverty level, and there are abandoned buildings everywhere. The median household income is about $22,480 per year, according to the U.S. Census, and the population is 80 percent black.
Andrew Young said in his speech at Brown Chapel Church on Sunday that “in Atlanta we were more focused on green and gold, rather than black and white.” Atlanta has become a black mecca, while places like Selma have faced population declines.
Still, there was something about walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that brought a sense of hope—a charge for a new generation to carry the torch and run with it. In 1965 people of color were fighting to be admitted into predominantly white colleges and universities. Today, viral videos expose fraternity members at those same universities singing, “There’ll never be a nigger in SAE.”
There is more work to be done to make this country a place where people really are judged by the content of their character. But that doesn’t mean ground has not been gained. In the words of President Obama, “If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago.”
That evidence exists even in the town that time forgot. George Evans, the mayor of Selma, is African American. Terri Sewell was elected in 2010 as Alabama’s first black congresswoman, representing the district that includes Selma. There is hope for us yet, as long as we do not allow the torch to be extinguished.