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A New Freedom 

Guitarist DJ Williams returns to Richmond to play his long-running benefit for education in war-torn Liberia.

click to enlarge Trumpeter Mark Ingraham and guitarist DJ Williams performing in Richmond, Va.

Peter McElhinney

Trumpeter Mark Ingraham and guitarist DJ Williams performing in Richmond, Va.

Having a good time for a good cause is always a good thing.

Projekt for Progress gives RVA an opportunity to party to the musical return of a onetime local institution, the DJ Williams Projekt, while helping children and teachers in war-ravaged Liberia. Friday’s event held at the Broadberry will be the eighth edition of the benefit, which returns after a two-year COVID hiatus.

The longevity reflects guitarist DJ Williams' deep connection to the nonprofit Africa Community Exchange (ACE) through his Liberia-born mother. Sophie Williams came to the United States for undergraduate work, left with a doctorate in education from Columbia University, and returned to work for the ministry of education. She came back to the U.S. after a military coup started a lengthy, vicious civil war in her home country.

“Those of us who were fortunate to escape that war decided to try and do something to give back to the country,” Williams says. He notes that the organization has been in existence in Richmond and Liberia for a little over 15 years.

“Our focus is on basic education in Liberia. During the civil war 80% of the country’s 2,400 schools were destroyed,” he says. “About 50% of school-age children do not have access to school because the government does not have enough space in public schools, and they cannot afford the cost of private schools.”

There is also a shortage of teaching skills, because “a lot of the teachers missed their training during the war, so their qualifications are not up to par,” he says.

A focus of the charity’s mission effort is the Ann Sandell Independent School, a community-based kindergarten-to-ninth grade institution that serves 800 students from poor families. “In addition to helping improve the school’s equipment and material, we also have initiated a teacher training program,” he adds.

They do this with remarkable financial efficiency.

“Because we are an all-volunteer organization, over 92% of donations go directly to programs on the ground in Liberia,” Williams explains. “We have been blessed to have DJ Williams Projekt at the key attraction for the last eight years. And the Richmond Community has been very supportive. This is our largest annual fundraiser and every event has been more successful than the last. It has been beautiful to see.”

Now based in Denver, guitarist DJ Williams was a longtime fixture on the Richmond scene with Projekt gigs every Tuesday night at the former Café Diem. His 2015 move west significantly broadened his horizons.

“I’ve been staying busy with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe,” Williams says, referring to the internationally touring jazz/funk band he joined in 2011. “And Shots Fired, the West Coast version of the Projekt, were just over in Europe for a bit.”

Williams also started recording his own original music in his home studio, most recently the album, “Mistah Weems.”

“I feel like I found a new freedom. It is great when you are in the studio with a band, but the collaboration tends to shape thoughts and opinions to please everybody around you,” he says. “In this solo setting I am free to absolutely do whatever I want. It sounds selfish, but I think I have started writing the most honest music I have ever put together.”

Richmond audiences will get to hear some of Williams' latest songs, accompanied by veteran Projekt members Gordon “Saxman” Jones and trumpeter Mark Ingraham. Bassist Kai Eason and People’s Blues of Richmond drummer Nekero Williams fill in for the longtime Projekt rhythm section of bassist Todd Herrington and drummer Dusty Simmons, who are both on the road with post-country songwriter Cris Jacobs. Calvin Brown will be on keyboards, and Williams hopes to also feature NoBS! Brass Band lead singer, Samantha Reed.

Asked for other reasons why people should come, Williams responds: “To support a band that has been a staple in the Richmond music scene, and to support a good cause that is closely related to this band, which means a lot to my family because it is supporting our roots. Come because it is good music and a good time, or you are going to miss out on the best things in life.”

“And if you don’t care about kid’s education,” he adds with a touch of humor, “you're a horrible person.”

DJ Williams’ Projekt for Progress takes place on Friday, July 1 at the Broadberry. Tickets are $25 with premium tables and VIP options available. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the music starts around 8 p.m.

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