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After Twitter war, Har Mar Superstar and Afrokeys join to aid nonprofits

Sean Tillman, who goes by the name Har Mar Superstar, is doing shows performing the music of Sam Cooke. Courtesy of Har Mar Superstar1 / 2
“Sean (Tillman) didn’t have to listen to me or take the time to willingly get uncomfortable,” said producer/label owner Afrokeys (aka Erick Anderson). Courtesy of Dan Huseby2 / 2

ST. PAUL—A heated Twitter war between two local musicians about race and cultural appropriation has turned into a fundraising campaign that's expected to raise thousands of dollars for four Twin Cities nonprofits, including St. Paul's Walker West Music Academy and High School for Recording Arts.

"If every internet beef could end like this, it'd be incredible," said Sean Tillmann, who records under the stage name Har Mar Superstar.

"This was the best case scenario," said producer/label owner Afrokeys (aka Erick Anderson), who accused Tillmann of culturally appropriating a black man's music for his own profit. "It's a great example of how things can turn around from pointing a finger and being upset to actually coming together to find a resolution."

Thursday, July 5, Tillmann launched a GoFundMe campaign with $4,000 of his tour proceeds and invited fans and those involved in the argument to contribute. Within hours, the fund had grown by more than $1,000 on its way to an $8,000 goal. Soon after, Tillmann learned it was against GoFundMe's terms of agreement to donate to your own campaign, but noted "I am trying to sort this out with them now. Sorry for the hiccup, but have no fear that I will definitely be donating the amount I've promised."

Tillmann plans to keep the campaign active for a month and will split the proceeds among Walker West, HSRA, the Philando Castile Memorial Scholarship and a yet-to-be-determined Minneapolis school in need of musical instruments. Tillmann is in the process of talking to officials to find the appropriate school.

It all began when the Dakota Jazz Club approached Tillmann with the opportunity to perform in the downtown Minneapolis venue in February.

"When they asked me to do a show, I thought a regular Har Mar show maybe is not the kind of experience you want to dine to," he said with a laugh. As Har Mar Superstar, Tillmann has spent nearly two decades building his reputation as a high-energy, anything-goes live performer with a bawdy sense of humor.

Tillmann used the chance to try something he'd thought about for years, a tribute to one of his musical heroes, Sam Cooke, who landed 30 hits in the Top 40 from 1957 to 1964, when he was murdered in a mysterious altercation with a motel manager.

"It's one of those things where I realized I have a very similar singing range," Tillmann said. "Sam Cooke has been one of my go-to driving records and I'd always sing along."

Tillmann's fondness for Cooke became apparent with his 2013 album "Bye Bye 17," which saw the often-outrageous performer taking a turn toward more serious soul music. Tillmann even used Cooke's final words — "Lady, you shot me" — as the title of what would become one of his most-famous songs.

Tickets sold out within hours and the Dakota added additional performances. After performing the concerts and seeing the reaction, Tillmann decided to try taking it on the road. He was out on tour when he first heard from Anderson, who learned about the tribute show on Facebook.

"I was, like, 'Really? This is what's going on?' In Minnesota, (cultural appropriation) doesn't get a lot of attention. Our racism here is subtle and constant. I was upset," Anderson said.

Tillmann had considered the issue before the very first Sam Cooke show. He said he chose to only perform Cooke's pop and love songs and to do so with love and reverence.

"I have strong feelings on the issue," he said. "I don't think a white man should sing (Cooke's civil rights anthem) 'A Change Is Gonna Come.' It's such a heavy song that's rooted in systemic struggle, I couldn't embody those lyrics and do them justice. It would negate the entire meaning of the lyrics."

Still, Tillmann said he initially shrugged off Anderson's tweets as internet trolling. But after a few days, he did respond and things heated up quickly. "I was definitely thrown off because I felt like it was a very hostile attack from one person I didn't know," said Tillmann. "But it all became pretty regrettable, pretty fast."

After a handful of angry back-and-forths that fueled a larger response from people defending both men, Tillmann and Anderson agreed to meet in person last week.

"I didn't realize how deep and meaningful it was to Erick to have this conversation," Tillmann said. "When we actually finally sat down to talk, he turned out to be a sweetheart. His whole motivation was very full of heart. We heard each other out and I really did understand a lot more about where his anger was coming from.

"I didn't really expect it to be a race issue, but that's the privilege of being white, in a way, you don't have to think of it like that."

For his part, Anderson said Tillmann not only listened to what he had to say, but took steps to resolve the issue. "Sean didn't have to listen to me or take the time to willingly get uncomfortable," he said. "He'd have an absolutely fine career (if he ignored me). The fact that he did talk to me means a lot and gives me hope for the music scene here and for the future."

After the meeting, Anderson tweeted that Tillmann "agreed to donate a portion of his tour proceeds to a black community organization. Felt good to be heard and acknowledged." Tillmann added: "I feel great we heard each other out and realized our hostility was much deeper than the two of us."

Tillmann later spoke to his girlfriend and father about the donation and they came up with the idea to turn it into a GoFundMe campaign that could help not one, but four local nonprofits.

"We thought it would be cool if everybody could literally put their money where their mouth is," he said. "It's too easy to yell into the void of the internet and not realize there is a person on the other end who has feelings, too."

Said Anderson: "It's very different when you're attacking a profile on Twitter than when you're looking into someone's eyes. It's different because you see the good, and bad, in each other. But we had a sincere, heartfelt conversation that led to a beautiful outcome."

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