Plus other highlights -- including Demi Lovato's powerful plea for mental health awareness

By Eric Renner Brown
September 24, 2017 at 01:31 PM EDT
Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Musicians, celebrities, and world leaders congregated at Central Park’s Great Lawn on Saturday for the sixth annual Global Citizen Festival. Though fall officially arrived Friday, the unseasonably warm day — temperatures in New York approached the 90-degree mark — provided the optimal backdrop for a loaded program that culminated in a rousing set by the legendary Stevie Wonder.

EW was on the ground in Central Park — read on for highlights from the event.

Stevie Wonder takes “a knee for America”

President Donald Trump made headlines late Friday and early Saturday when he criticized professional football payers who kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest. Before Stevie Wonder played a note of his headlining set Saturday night, he slyly responded to the president. “Tonight, I’m taking a knee for America,” he said after an impassioned speech, his son Kwame Morris helping him to the ground. “But not just one knee — I’m taking both knees. Both knees in prayer for our planet, our future, our leaders of the world, and our globe. Amen.” As he stood back up and prepared to make his way to his keyboard, Wonder added some levity: “I wanted to say that prayer before I serve you my musical meal,” he quipped. “Is that OK?”

Pharrell helps Wonder cap a hit-filled set

Wonder brought an activist message — but he also brought the hits, barreling through “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Higher Ground,” “Sir Duke,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and more. After his performance of the iconic 1985 charity single “We Are the World,” Wonder invited Pharrell onstage, who performed “Get Lucky,” “Superstition,” and “Happy” with the legendary musician. After Wonder put his spin on John Lennon’s “Imagine” — the Beatle once lived 10 blocks from the stage, he noted, saying Lennon’s spirit still lingered — he urged Pharrell to reprise “Happy” to conclude the night on an upbeat note.

New York politicians show up in force

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Congressman Jerrold Nadler both took the stage to speak about the importance of foreign aid and general activism. De Blasio, particularly, emphasized the need to “protect Mother Earth” and for citizens to tell their elected representatives that they “agree with the Paris Agreement.” But it was Senator Chuck Schumer who had the most colorful appearance. “I’m from Brooklyn, and I came here from Brooklyn the green way,” he said, clad in shorts, white tube socks, and with a helmet in hand. “I rode my bike!”

Demi Lovato stumps for mental health awareness

Many celebrities spoke throughout the festival, but Demi Lovato’s turn was among the evening’s most memorable. In her appearance, the pop star was announced as the new Global Citizen ambassador for mental health, and she spoke powerfully about the issue. “Ending the stigma around mental health conditions and supporting internally displaced children to build physical and mental resilience through education and access to justice is not a choice,” she said. “It needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.” Lovato will participate in a Save the Children program, Healing and Education through the Arts, which will seek to help young people in war-torn regions of Iraq.

Lupita Nyong’o introduces Andra Day’s arresting “Strange Fruit” cover

“Unfortunately in America, many people still feel the impact of racial injustice,” Lupita Nyong’o said when introducing Andra Day for her sundown set. Day, in turn, provided one of the program’s starkest artistic statements, performing a staggering rendition of Billie Holliday’s seminal anti-lynching tune “Strange Fruit.” “That was a song that was written over 80 years ago,” Day said afterward, “and unfortunately the message in the song is still just as relevant today as it was then.” Activists addressed racial justice throughout the festival, but it was Day’s tragically beautiful performance that conveyed the message’s urgency most effectively.

Green Day lambasts Donald Trump

The Bay Area punks have long worn politics on their sleeve, from 2004’s American Idiot to last year’s Revolution Radio. Their slot as Saturday evening’s penultimate act was predictably incendiary. “Ladies and gentlemen,” frontman Billie Joe Armstrong said after opening with “Know Your Enemy” and “Holiday,” “tonight, we are gonna make the world great again. You feel me?” Their set included tunes like “Basket Case” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” but the highlight came during “American Idiot.” Green Day have often changed the lyrics of the tune in the Trump era, and on Saturday night they tweaked the lyric “I’m not a part of a redneck agenda” to “I’m not a part of a dumb Trump America.”

Bipartisan members of Congress plead to maintain foreign aid

Considering the degree of polarization currently pervading American politics, any show of bipartisanship is noteworthy — and cause for celebration. New York’s Democratic politicians were out in force, but so were congressmen of both parties from other states. “Helping those in need is a fundamental American value,” Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican from Virginia, said. “Our work is not done. Now is not the time to cut foreign aid.” Charlie Dent, a Republican from Pennsylvania, echoed Taylor: “Foreign assistance is good for humanity.”

The Killers arrive early and play the hits

Despite their billing as one of the event’s five headliners, the Killers took the stage a hair past 5 p.m. – just an hour into the event. But while they released their fifth album Friday – and had played two New York shows earlier in the week in support of it – Brandon Flowers and Co. kept a too-brief four-song set to hits all more than a decade old: “Mr. Brightside” and “All These Things That I’ve Done,” from 2004’s Hot Fuss, and “Read My Mind” and “When You Were Young,” from 2006’s Sam’s Town. Between the emotional heft of the tunes, Flowers’ arena-worthy charisma, and the Global Citizen platform, the set felt nearly U2-ian in its message.