Take a bow, activist singers of the world!
Every now and then there is an action that hits all the right notes — the message is clear, the messengers are appropriate, the setting and tone are impeccable, and the ripples carry on far into the future. One such action took place earlier this month in the midst of protests in Ferguson, Mo., against the killing of teenager Michael Brown and police use of excessive force.
Seemingly far from the streets of Ferguson at the Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis, concert goers returned to their seats after intermission. One by one, a diverse group of protesters interspersed in the audience rose to solemnly sing out a tailored protest song: “Which side are you on friend? Which side are you on? Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all.”
Get our free emails
Others dropped simple and direct banners over the balcony reading “Racism Lives Here” with a drawing of the St. Louis Arch and “Requiem for Mike Brown.” After a couple minutes, the 20 singers walked out on their own while chanting “black lives matter”; hand-cut paper hearts floated down into the hall inscribed with “Requiem for Michael Brown, May 20, 1996 – August 8, 2014,” on one side and information on how to connect with the work on the other.
The action was received with more applause than boos, more claps of support than shocked looks. Perhaps the high caliber performance was harmonious with the setting; perhaps the heartfelt flyers had just the right light touch. Strong solemn harmonies rang out across the concert hall, matching the tenor of the event, inviting the audience to reflect on the value of life — of black lives in particular — and the role of individuals and groups in resolving the issues we face.
This is not the only music of the Ferguson protests; the dominant soundtrack has been hip-hop, speaking to and of the community protesting. This time, as organizer Derek Laney noted, they intentionally wanted to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable … You have to make a choice for just staying in your comfort zones or will you speak out for something that’s important? It’s not all right to just ignore it.”
This action was perfectly in tune with the evening’s scheduled performance — Brahms’ “A German Requiem” — which inspired the sing out. Widely hailed as an innovative work over the 150 years since it was written, Brahms was clear on its humanist rather than deist foundation; it was intended to offer comfort for the living who mourn, more than as a prayer for the dead. (In comparison, the Requiem Mass in the Roman Catholic service starts with prayers for the dead.) As humanists recognize that man-made problems can be, and should be, solved by humans not a god, activists demand that the people, who created and sustain the issues of racism and police violence, be held accountable and change their behavior.
In honor of this classical and well-orchestrated action, here are a few other strategic and tactical ways to use song well. We’re not keeping score, but these are all awesome.
1. Use song as tactic. The simplest way to use music in support of your activism is to incorporate it as a one-off tactic. Beautiful voices can go a long way to making your message more palatable to the ears, and encourage those who disagree with you to give you a listen. After all, a well-picked tune can worm its way into the psyche more insidiously than just about anything.
Professional singers with the group Billionaires for Wealthcare used the well known song “Tomorrow” from “Annie” in a guerrilla musical dubbed “Public Option Annie.” This clever and civil intervention at the health insurance industry’s national trade conference a few years ago was clearly enjoyed by some of those being protested, and the video took the tactic and message out virally for a wider audience.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., foreclosure hearings were disrupted for the day by a small group of singers and Organizing for Occupation activists who belted out an original soulful tune that reverberated lovingly off the walls of the hearing room and the tight hallways as they were escorted out in handcuffs, including one lawyer.
The haunting melody and simple repetitive words, “Mrs. Auctioneer, all the people here, are asking you to hold all the sales right now, we’re going to survive but we don’t know how,” mirrored the widespread despair and sadness of those faced with eviction by criminal banks in a miserable economy. The de-facto new age spiritual both succeeded in temporarily confusing the authorities on how to react, lowering the overall tension around the intervention, and channeling emotion around the hardships so many were facing. However, it didn’t prevent arrests or eviction from the hearing room.
Many other groups have used song as a way to rally the troops, make a bigger noise, or stay focused during an event. Code Pink and others involved in the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement around Palestine have conducted several actions with a Greek chorus and singers in musical flash mob weddings targeting SodaStream and Ahava products at Bed Bath & Beyond — hooking onto the fact that the retail giant is one of the nation’s largest bridal registries. During Black Friday actions at Walmarts around the world, many protesters laid down a track or two of parody Christmas carols, keeping up the cheer of the demonstrations and the heat on the Waltons.
2. Famously Amplify. If you can carry a tune and also pack some name recognition, using your privileged position can even up a score and get you beyond high level security: At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2011, Hawaiian guitarist Makana used what should have been his 45 minute instrumental set to sing his newly minted protest song, “We are Many.” His Occupy with Aloha stunt was strung out with a continuous loop of resistance lyrics, including “The lobbyists at Washington do gnaw … And until they are purged, we won’t withdraw …We’ll occupy the streets, we’ll occupy the courts, we’ll occupy the offices of you, till you do the bidding of the many, not the few.”
Another singular concert that marked a turning point in the U.S. civil rights struggle came about when world renowned opera singer Marion Anderson was barred from performing at the racist Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in 1939 because she was black. In response, Eleanor Roosevelt was able to get the head of the Department of Interior to allow a public performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Her show stands today as a monument to bold anti-racism work and the impact of public performance.
Sometimes, your protest might only be instrumental: Famously, when activist folksinger Pete Seeger was on stage to sing to a stadium of fans in Barcelona in the 1970s, he was presented with a long list of songs he was forbidden to sing under the fascist state. Seeger reportedly commented, dryly, “This looks a lot like my set list!” before ambling on stage and relaying the news to the 100,000 awaiting the show. “I’ve been told I can’t sing these songs … So I’ll just play the chords; maybe you know the words. They didn’t say anything about you singing them.” Clear and focused, Seeger strummed each song as the crowd, buoyed by their collective numbers, sang along. As Seeger told many of us, music used right can make a difference.
3. Develop your theme song. There have been movements with song as their backbone, as more than just their soundtrack. (Although soundtracks are always a welcome addition to boots on the ground.) Several well known groups use performance and music as an intentional and defining centerpiece of their ongoing work.
Out of New York City comes Reverend Billy and the Church of the Stop Shopping Choir. Their engaging and powerful signature tactic involves guerilla theater and a choir grounded in the form of a spiritual revival meeting. Protest and intervention messages are amplified with sermons, song and speaking truth to power. The willingness of Reverend Billy and the choir to risk arrest has helped create many potent moments, including a Thanksgiving dinner inside a Bank of America lobby — complete with a set table, food, the choir and a recent evictee.
In London, Art Not Oil is a collection of groups who view their climate activism as art. Focused on exposing Shell Oil’s dirty environmental dealings, Shell Out Sounds held a series of pop-up choral performances at the Royal Festival Hall. Not only were they given high notes of praise from critics who were in attendance at the concerts, but — working in coordination with activist groups Platform and Rising Tide — they pressured the cultural Southbank Center to drop Shell as a sponsor.
4. Sing from your cultural traditions. It is said music can be a universal communicator; certainly no one culture seems to have an exclusive claim on the power of music and song. The Singing Revolution in Eastern Europe, the civil rights struggle in the United States, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa are three of the most inspiring examples from around the world. Within nonviolent movements, harnessing song and other cultural elements keeps a community vibrant and relevant.
The Singing Revolution took place in the Baltic states between 1987 and 1991. Massive traditional nationwide gatherings in Estonia provided the platform for a resurgence of patriotic songs that functioned as protest to the occupying Soviet force. At one point, 300,000 Estonians, or about a quarter of the population, is said to have gathered to sing forbidden tunes together in a massive statement of solidarity for independence. These songs were also reported to help in maintaining blockades and the nonviolent behavior of protesters in the way of oncoming Soviet forces.
In the United States, the civil rights movement drew on the long lineage of gospel tunes and freedom songs. Much has been written on how people were drawn into the movement through concerts — and the music also kept them coming back; adaptation of the old tunes by younger participants bridged a generational divide; and the spiritual base for many of the songs not only conveyed the importance of the work but also the nonviolent demeanor that paved the way for mass participation and sympathetic allies.
The South African struggle against apartheid has been called a “revolution in four-part harmony.” The potent breadth and depth of songs used in the liberation movement are well documented in “Amandla.” “Music does not create political change as a solitary force,” Sifiso Ntuli says in the film, “rather, it is a conduit for change that stirs a community into action, expresses and calls attention to oppression, and bridges the divide between people of different cultures.” Song and traditional dance served as prayer, as motivation, as comfort, as a call to action and as guidance for the movement — capturing the anger at apartheid, the passion for freedom and the energy for change.
So, take another bow, singers. The right song at the right moment speaks in more languages and shifts energy in more ways than we can technically articulate.