When civil rights protesters sang at marches, lunch counters, and picket lines in the 1960’s, they brought a new consciousness into being, their bodies and voices instruments in service to justice, dignity, and freedom. Their message was sustained through a body of communal song rooted in African-American Spirituals and Gospel music. With memorable, sturdy melodies that could be quickly learned and harmonized by a group, they were easily adapted to specific needs and contexts. They didn’t require paper, amplification, or a director, just voices listening and responding to each other.
Communal singing played a similar role in in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, as four-part freedom songs awakened spiritual power that shifted the country’s political priorities.
I’m convinced singing has a similar role to play in the moral and political struggles of this moment but it has been notably absent at protests and marches I’ve participated in over the past three years. Powerful rhythmic chants and shouts have served as a rallying cry, and if music has appeared it’s been from a narrow canon of Civil Rights-era songs.
I wonder if we’ve stopped singing because young people are struggling to find their voice in the songs of their parents’ generation and before? Can singing adequately express the intensity of our anger and frustration with a broken, unjust system? Or is it because the texts and musical styles we have privileged (centered largely in the Christian tradition) do not name or faithfully hold the experience of other religious traditions, agnostics, or those of no faith?
What can we do? What is already being done? How might music enliven and sustain today’s movement and help us ‘sing a new world into being,’ as hymn writer Mary Louise Bringle invites?
1. Encourage the creation of new songs for justice work we’re currently engaged in
We need a new generation of protest songs that name the present issues and challenges we face, as well as the goals we hope to achieve. What would it look like for communities to organize, sponsor, or host workshops where local activists, organizers, and musicians write new protest songs together? Then gather a wider group to try them out and notice which tunes ‘stick.’ A powerful sense of purpose and community will inevitably emerge as people create and sing together.
2. Sing with a Justice Choir or organize one!
Launched after the Women’s March in 2017, the Justice Choir in Minneapolis (‘Start local, stay vocal’) supports justice work through singing. They are currently releasing a digital, downloadable resource of new and re-purposed protest songs for the issues of our time. And they are sponsoring local chapter choirs around the country to respond “pop-up” style to issues in their local communities: singing at marches, rallies, houses of worship, or anywhere a marginalized sector is needing a bigger voice. They welcome singers and local chapter leaders.
3. Develop tools and techniques to lead singing yourself
Song leadership doesn’t require a trained voice or music degree but needs leaders with communication skills that support group learning and formation. Music That Makes Community teaches a practice of paperless song leadership that can be used wherever people gather, from the pews to the streets. Attend one of their workshops around the country or view their collection of online resources and YouTube videos to develop skills and songs that strengthen communities working for justice.
4. Imagine how technology can invite new forms of participation
A Los Angeles-based singer known as MILCK wrote a song for the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. then invited a group of women to learn it with her over Skype. They rehearsed together then sang it several times during the march, offering it as a powerful act of resistance.
Organizations like Choir Choir Choir in Toronto are exploring new models of musical participation in a culture where community singing has diminished. Drop-in rehearsals are held in public spaces, recorded and posted on YouTube. Choir members rehearse where and when it’s convenient for them, then show up to performances that have the participatory energy of a rock concert.
Using this model, new protest songs could be taught in public spaces and shared easily through social media. They could be rehearsed as a group gathers for action and give energy and focus to a march, rally or meeting of any size.
I don’t think the question is whether our current justice movement will include singing. The question is how. Communal singing invites us to access a powerful range of emotions and energies and can help sustain the emotional and spiritual well-being of those in the struggle. And as we learn, breathe, and move together we find ourselves more than just a gathering of individuals, but a community practicing listening and collaboration, essential tools for the healing and transformation of our communities and our world.