The Orlando music scene was already aghast at the murder of pop starlet Christina Grimmie at the Plaza Live by a deranged obsessive on June 10, 2016. Then, the very next night, Pulse happened. And everything changed.
"It was no longer enough to simply be a safe place to host events for people to come and enjoy themselves," says local promoter Kyle Raker (Norsekorea, Will's Pub). "The environment here in Orlando seemed to become one where that sense of security also needed to become visible."
The blow was staggering, crippling, enormous. Next to it, everything seemed so inconsequential. We didn't know what to do, but we knew it couldn't be nothing. So, amid probably the biggest trauma in the city's history, the community began to repair the tears in its fabric. It would be a long time before Orlando got its minds around this tragedy, if ever, so we rode on instinct. After we flooded the lines at blood banks the next morning, the music scene expressed itself in the ways it knows best: through song, shows and community.
Naturally, the clubs rallied. The Parliament House coordinated with Pulse ownership to aid their staff, and the Abbey took on hosting the Pulse Latin Nights. But the ripples went far beyond that.
On the live circuit, bands touring through in the immediate aftermath donated show proceeds to official Pulse funds, acts like Pity Sex and Petal. Then music benefits spread across the city, across all scenes, everywhere from Southern Fried Sunday to the Geek Easy. The "Beautiful Together" event at the Dr. Phillips Center unified more than 50 local arts groups. Big national names – from a wide spectrum including pop (Imagine Dragons and Nate Ruess at Hard Rock Live), metal (Sleep at the Beacham), country (the "Country Strong" benefit concert at CFE Arena), Broadway ("From Broadway With Love" at Dr. Phillips Center) and freestyle (Johnny O. and Cynthia at the Abbey) – came to raise money.
"There is a sense of tranquility that music can give," says Orlando rapper Lauren "TKO" Rohan. "And that's what was happening through a series of events around the city; people were coming together to let the music heal. We came together to not only raise money, but to also raise awareness. We came together as musicians to let the city know that we will not be broken."
The night immediately following Pulse, OW photographer Jen Cray was on the beat at the So So Glos concert at Will's Pub. "Though the venue was mostly empty and those that were there were quiet and shell-shocked, I've never experienced such an immense feeling of communal mourning and healing through the live music experience," she says. "Shows in the weeks that followed had the same warmth and love – lots of hugs, lots of conversation. A whole lot of feelings of not just sadness but of strength. It was beautiful – this healing through art."
The songs followed. Homegrown benefit compilations emerged, like Heartbeats, featuring local artists, and Forever Beautiful, a locally organized 49-song (one for each victim) comp with input from big names like Bad Religion, Anti-Flag and Taking Back Sunday. The day of the tragedy, Orlando breakout band You Blew It put out an EP of unreleased songs, named it Pulse and donated all proceeds to local LGBT beacon the Center.
Backed by more than 50 others, Orlando musician Shadow Pearson penned "City Song – Finger on the Pulse." More tribute songs were made by national stars, including Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda ("Love Make the World Go Round"), Sharon Van Etten ("Not Myself"), Melissa Etheridge ("Pulse") and a glitteringly loaded all-star cast for "Hands."
Though the music goes on, the wounds remain deep and raw in Orlando nightclubs a year later. The weekend of Pulse plumbed the depths of our despair, but also of our humanity and resolve. The reflex was a wave of solidarity, enlightenment and pride like we've never seen, like we've perhaps never even realized we were capable of before.
"It's sad that it had to take a tragedy on this scale to do so, but I definitely think it has opened people's eyes to the struggles of queer and Latinx folks," says Wet Nurse drummer Vanessa Brewster. "When something like this happens in your own backyard, you can't ignore it anymore and pretend that hatred and bigotry don't exist."