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Pop music stars unite for A&E special highlighting race issues

Bruce Springsteen and John Legend

Bruce Springsteen and John Legend perform “American Skin (41 Shots)” at the Shrine Auditorium for the A&E special “Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America.”

(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

The first indication that something different was up at Wednesday night’s taping of the all-star benefit “Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America” was that the standard all-hands-on-deck number bringing the evening’s heavy-hitter musicians together on stage came not at the end, but at the beginning.

Bruce Springsteen initially was joined by singer-songwriter John Legend and guitarist-songwriter-activist Tom Morello for the opening number of the show slated to air Friday on A&E, “American Skin (41 Shots).” As the song progressed and lights went up, the choir behind them expanded to include more than a dozen of the participants who would be featured individually and in combination in successive performances.

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That roster included Pharrell Williams, Sting, Pink, Jamie Foxx, Sia, Ed Sheeran, Big Sean, Smokey Robinson, Jill Scott, Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, Tori Kelly, Miguel and Rhiannon Giddens delivering socially and politically charged songs that complemented filmed segments shot at three epicenters of racial unrest in recent years: Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Charleston, S.C.

Friday’s two-hour concert special will be followed by a companion second hour titled “Shining a Light: Conversations on Race in America” expanding on the discussions conducted for the project in various communities by Williams, Legend and Alicia Keys, who were accompanied on those field segments by journalists Soledad O’Brien, Michele Norris and Byron Pitts, respectively.

Other musicians, actors and sports celebrities who introduced the film segments and various performances included Morgan Freeman, Nick Jonas, George Lopez, Nicki Minaj, LL Cool J, Kurt Warner and Nick Young.

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The show’s organizers have two aims: raising awareness about ongoing incidents of racism in the U.S., and raising money for victims and survivors of those incidents. Proceeds from the sale of tickets to Wednesday’s taping will benefit the Fund for Progress on Race in America under the guidance of the United Way Worldwide.

Along with the entertainers who took part in the taping at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium, survivors of the mass shooting in June at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston addressed the packed house, and residents of Ferguson and Baltimore also spoke.

The songs chosen for the evening spanned almost eight decades of pop music. Sia sang Jimmy Cliff’s yearning 1975 ballad “Many Rivers to Cross”; Sheeran took on Curtis Mayfield’s gospel-steeped 1960s civil rights anthem “People Get Ready”; Pink and Legend teamed on Donny Hathaway’s 1973 song “Someday We’ll All Be Free”; Church, Giddens and Robinson collaborated on “Kill A Word,” a new song from Church’s latest album; Scott turned to Abel Meeropol’s haunting “Strange Fruit” that became a Billie Holiday classic through her 1939 recording; and the show concluded with Legend and rapper Big Sean on the latter’s recent hit “One Man Can Change the World.”

The “Shining a Light” specials will air across all A&E’s channels including History, Lifetime, H2, LMN and FYI and will be simulcast on more than 130 iHeartRadio stations and AOL.

Calendar will have a full report Friday on the “Shining a Light” project.

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