Freedom First performs on stage with Keith LaMar phoning in from Ohio. Photo by Yasmin Mustefa / North by Northwestern

Northwestern community members gathered together last Saturday in the Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall to attend a jazz benefit in honor of Keith LaMar, a man currently on death row in Ohio who is scheduled to be executed on Nov. 16, 2023.

The benefit raised money for LaMar’s legal fees as his case is reinvestigated, and featured the band Freedom First, who performed songs on LaMar’s album. The album, also called Freedom First, is the only one ever released by someone on death row. LaMar joined the benefit through a phone call, which was connected to a speaker as he spoke to the audience and performed poetry.

During the benefit, Campaign Manager of the Justice for Keith Lamar campaign Amy Gordiejew shared with the audience that the Governor of Ohio had announced a pause on all executions through October.

After starting in Europe and traveling to Chile, Michigan and Ohio, the tour ended at Northwestern. The group traveled to Evanston after performing Friday night in Cleveland, LaMar’s hometown.

“It was really beautiful to see those two worlds come together. The people that he knew and the people who he's met and who are supporting him,” Gordiejew said. “The exchange between the musicians and the audience was just really so sweet and powerful.”

The audience at the benefit in Cleveland was made up of hometown friends and family, and Gordiejew kept LaMar updated throughout the event.

“It was just very sweet, just to hear the real satisfaction and his voice, the joy and the hope,” she said. “You could tell his tank got filled and topped and overflowed.”

Ken Wright, who met LaMar at 15 years old when they were both in high school, spoke to the audience about Lamar’s personality and talents.

“I quickly realized he wasn’t just funny, but a master communicator,” he said. “This brother has so many talents, so many gifts, I can only imagine what he would do if he were not confined in an eight by ten cell.”

Jason Fulford is a cousin of Eric Garner, who was murdered by a New York Police Department officer in 2015. He performed a piece he wrote alongside the band.

Fulford first heard of LaMar’s case while he was doing marathon runs in honor of Garner. A friend then asked Fulford if he could talk about LaMar’s case.

“Something in me just gave him the mic at the end of the run and I've been part of Keith’s life and now the campaign since.”

Fulford said his biggest hope is that the benefit will inspire people to contribute through spreading awareness, organizing or donating after hearing Lamar’s story.

“Any contribution in any way with Keith and anyone else that you can have a positive impact on is the takeaway that I want to have,” he said. “Keith is a shining example of a bright light that makes a positive impact for others.”

Pianist Albert Marques shares the inspiration behind the concerts and remembers calls to amplify Black voices during protests for George Floyd in 2020.

“Instead of [talking] about the struggles of a group of people, why don't we let them talk?” Marques asked.

LaMar shared messages that continue to inspire him during the benefit.

“One of the things that I share with my friends is to be gentle to themselves,” he said. “I have around my space these different affirmations that remind me that my life has value.”

Gordiejew shared plans the campaign has for the rest of year, including new lawyers for a reinvestigation of LaMar’s case, a new documentary, a podcast in the summer and a tour on the West coast. She's is proud of the tour and is excited for all upcoming events.

“We're all very tired, but we're tired in the best sense possible,” she said. “Our plans are to be very tired by the time we get to November.”