Photo by Rich Bockmann
By Rich Bockmann

A powerful soprano voice belted out a song lamenting loss as community members gathered in Jamaica Monday to take a stand against violence.

“Seems like to me the stars don’t shine so bright/Seems to me like the sun has lost its light/Seems like to me there’s nothing going right,” opera singer and voice coach Janet Mandel sang inside the downtown Jamaica Market. “Since you went away.”

Parents who lost their sons to violence, community activists and men who know first-hand how dangerous it can be to be young and black came together at the call of 100 Suits for 100 Men President Kevin Livingston, who provides professional attire to those in need.

After her husband — renowned voice coach Sam Sakarian — died, Mandel was looking for something meaningful to do with his impressive wardrobe, and when she saw Livingston profiled on NY1 she decided she would donate his clothing to a good cause.

“I cried and said, ‘That’s where Sam’s clothing has to go,’” she said. “He had a lot of sport coats, shirts, ties, shoes, raincoats and some beautiful overcoats.”

Mandel’s selection, “Sence You Went Away,” was written in the 1920s by James Weldon Johnson who, along with his brother John Rosamond Johnson, is probably best known for writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes called the black national anthem.

The song is written in an African-American Southern dialect, and Mandel said it never got the credit it deserved because its authors were black.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to revive it,’” she said. “It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking song.”

“Seems like to me I just can’t help but sigh,” the song’s lyrics go, noting how days seem longer when all you can think about is the person who is not there.

It is a feeling Penny Wrencher knows well.

“It’s so painful for me,” she said through tears as she explained there has been no arrest made in the five years since her son, Andre Saunders, was gunned down at the South Jamaica Houses in 2009. “It has to stop! All this killing and for what? It’s nonsense.”

Wrencher holds a clothing drive every year in honor of Saunders, who was a Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus operator and aspiring hip-hop artist.

“He was a giving, loving person,” she said. “There’s no better way to honor him than to give.”

The summer has been off to a violent start. Last month a 14-year-old girl was killed when a gunman opened fire on a city bus in South Jamaica, and during the first weekend in June 26 people were shot in the city in a 72-hour period.

One of the victims was a 33-year-old father who was killed as he sat inside his car outside the South Jamaica Houses just a few blocks from where Saunders was killed.

Jahar Luchie, 22, said he is a former Crip gang member who decided enough is enough.

“Seeing all this black-on-black crime, it’s like a black Holocaust,” he said. “We need to educate ourselves and stick together.”

City Council candidate Manny Caughman said he supports the use of scanners that would allow the NYPD to detect guns in an effort to reduce violence.

William Bell, whose son Sean was killed in a high-profile police shooting in 2006, said Livingston’s clothing donations are appreciated by the visitors to the Sean Elijah Bell Community Center.

“I can’t keep clothes at the center,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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