Pastors join with musicians to seek justice for slain bass player Anthony Tolson
The murder rate in Detroit may be going down, but that doesn’t matter much to the family of bass player Anthony Tolson, who was murdered on Christmas Eve by a group of carjackers. Tolson had just finished performing at his church and was on his way to his mother’s house with Christmas gifts for his three young children that he planned to open with them on Christmas morning.
It also doesn’t make things better for the family of 7-year-old Chanell Berry, who was murdered several days later while playing with her Christmas toys inside her house on Sunday with a friend when gunshots sprayed through the window, allegedly due to some crazy family drama involving a jealous ex-girlfriend who had returned to the house for revenge. Chenell’s 8-year-old friend, Ellen Garjo, was shot three times but survived.
It’s hard to celebrate more than 300 gun killings in a year, no matter how you want to package it. That many dead bodies, most of them erased due to senseless violence, is simply not good news. On Monday morning, a large group of more than 50 Detroit-area pastors from a wide variety of denominations, and an equally large representation of local musicians, gathered at Central Baptist Church on Detroit’s northwest side to conduct a press conference to declare in one voice that “enough is enough” after Tolson’s Christmas Eve slaying. Central Baptist was Tolson’s church, and it was also the site of his last performance before heading home to see his children.
Although faced with the painful fact that too many similar press conferences and remembrances have been held in years past, each of them filled with outrage and commitments from all present that this had to stop, those in attendance were nevertheless somewhat hopeful that this time would be different. Rev. Charles Williams, senior pastor of King Solomon Baptist Church and President of the National Action Network’s Detroit Branch, spoke to a reporter outside the church before the press conference began. He speculated that because Tolson was killed on Christmas Eve, was leaving a church performance to go see his children, and was planning to become an ordained minister, these were all unique factors that could launch this particular tragic occurrence above the fray into a community rallying cry that might actually be heeded this time.
Joe Smith, a local musician who joined the crowded stage at the front of the church to speak out on behalf of his friend and colleague, also felt that Tolson’s death could be a turning point – but only if the Detroit community stands up. This was a sentiment widely echoed throughout the press conference.
“I just want to say that the reason why the music community has come together so much is time. Many of us have worked with Tolson, some of us haven’t, some of us have worked with him more than others. The reason why this has brought us together so much is that we all realize it could have been any one of us. How many times have we left rehearsal, left church service, left the studio, at night? Thinking it was just routine, going to get something to eat then going home. Or stop by the store and go home. Never realizing that something like this could happen to any one of us. And so that’s why it resonates so much with me is because what he was doing that night I have done kazillions of times. We just ask that anybody who knows anything please speak up. Stop snitching has not brought us anything. That culture has not benefited us at all. In any type of way.
“We’re gonna miss Anthony Tolson. He was a great musician, he was a silly guy, he was a fun guy, he was good at what he did. It’s sad that all that talent is gone now,” said Smith.
Kern Brantley, another Detroit musician contacted later after the press conference, described Tolson as “an amazing bass player” whom he had hired to back up such major national acts as Lady Gaga and Young Jeezy. But what he said stood out about Tolson, whom he has known personally for nearly 15 years, was his dedication and commitment to his children, as well as his professionalism. Tolson’s commitment to being a good family man was what made Brantley want to hire him because it reflected his responsibility.
The fact that a jam session held in his memory on Sunday night at a Southfield night club called Back Beat raised more than $7,000 is strong evidence of the high regard in which Tolson was held by his fellow musicians. Another jam session is planned for Tuesday night at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.
Bishop James Williams, who serves as the faith-based program manager for Crime Stoppers, chimed in on the importance of a united community to combat the violence, referring to the perpetrators of that violence as a “poison”.
“We don’t have enough law-enforcement officers to root out the cancer in our community, unless our community stands up and speaks up. The community, in my mind, is a body, and your body is made in such a way that it rejects poisons and cancers. The kind of people that will murder, with no thought of innocent upstanding people like Anthony Tolson, are poison. And as a body we must root them out. Somebody knows something. Somebody has to say something.”
Pastor Robert Bolton, pastor of Central Baptist Church, said, “It may not have been your family, but it could have been your family. It could have been your son, it could have been your father, your brother.”
City council members James Tate and Andre Spivey were also present. Spivey received an enthusiastic round of applause when he said, “No one can come and save us in our community. We must save ourselves.”
Bishop Edgar Vann, who served as the master of ceremonies for the event, expressed both surprise and appreciation that so many pastors and musicians had come out in such a united force during what is typically such a busy and hectic time of the year.
“We have come together as never before. This is in the middle of Christmas holiday. It is in the middle of a very, very busy time for pastors and other leaders to be here. And also for musicians. What I’m extremely grateful for is that this has struck a chord in the musician community throughout the city of Detroit, which is very, very vast, and very, very talented.
“We are standing as one voice to leverage our power and our influence to make sure that we get to the bottom of this. Enough is enough. This is an opportunity to change the culture in this city. Hopefully this is a watershed moment.”
“We’re here for all the families. We’re here for all the victims of senseless violence. To us all the lives matter.”