Reviving song culture strengthens our capacity to create social change.
By Paul Engler
(published in Waving Nonviolence)
Social movements are stronger when they sing. That’s a lesson that has been amply demonstrated throughout history, and it’s one that I have learned personally in working to develop trainings for activists over the past decade and a half. In Momentum, a training program that I co-founded and that many other trainers and organizers have built over the last seven years, song culture is not something we included at the start. And yet, it has since become so indispensable that the trainers I know would never imagine doing without it again.
The person who taught me the most as I came to appreciate the impact that song can have on movement culture is Stephen Brackett, an activist and hip-hop MC known on stage as Brer Rabbit.
A tall Denverite with abundant dreadlocks and an easy-going presence, Stephen started rapping for fun in the fourth grade. As a high school student in the 1990s, he and his friend Jamie Laurie started the Flobots, a group they have dubbed a “band with an agenda.” Stephen’s stage name, Brer Rabbit, came to him one day during a college freestyle, when he picked up a ceramic rabbit from a countertop. In an “act of divine accidents,” as he calls it, he named himself after the figure in folklore “that represents most what a rapper is and can be” — namely, “a trickster who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn, provoking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit.”
Because his off-stage persona is so warm and humble, it can be startling to watch Stephen transform into Brer Rabbit when he takes the mic in a show, firing off rhymes that denounce destructive state and corporate power while celebrating human potential. Perhaps best known for their viral 2005 single “Handlebars,” which went to number 3 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks and has racked up more than 80 million views on YouTube, Jamie and Stephen’s sharp phrases can be found throughout the Flobots catalog. In their 2007 song, “Rise,” Stephen raps:
Don’t let apathy police the populace. /We will march across / those stereotypes that were marked for us. /The answer’s obvious, / we switch the consonants /and change the sword to words and lift continents.
Stephen was a participant in one of our earliest Momentum trainings, almost a decade ago, and he subsequently joined our team to become a core trainer himself. In large part thanks to his leadership, we developed a session within Momentum devoted to reviving song culture. We named it “Why did we stop singing?” This module teaches how to bring more music to our movements by breaking down common barriers like self-consciousness, discomfort with vulnerability and lack of a shared repertoire.
Once Momentum began incorporating it into its curriculum, “Why did we stop singing?” quickly became one of the most popular parts of the training. Over several years, many of the organization’s trainers and leaders worked to develop the module, and as they did, some important lessons emerged. Chief among them: Music is a powerful tool that we have too often neglected in our organizing — and members of our movements are hungry to bring it back.
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Recognizing the power of song
Momentum was created in a moment when several movements — including Occupy and the immigrant Dreamers — had experienced dramatic cycles of mass protest followed by letdown and demobilization. The training was designed to promote a more sustainable culture of direct action, as well as to put traditions of mass protest in dialogue with longer-term models of structure-based organizing. Momentum has since grown into a training institute and movement incubator that also coaches activist leaders, provides skillshares, and helps new groups develop. When Stephen, who was already a prominent activist in the Denver area, attended our training in 2014, he was convinced of the importance of the curriculum. But he felt something was missing.
In the year before, Stephen had experienced the passing of a mentor, Dr. Vincent Harding, a pastor, scholar and storied civil rights activist. A colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., Harding had helped draft King’s landmark 1967 antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” After King was assassinated in 1968, Harding worked with his widow, Coretta Scott King, to establish the King Center in Atlanta and served as the Center’s first director.
As he left his first Momentum training, Stephen was still wrestling with a question that Harding had posed to him some time before. The elder activist saw collective singing as a key aspect of many movements, including both the U.S. civil rights struggle and the international mobilization against apartheid in South Africa. “Dr. Harding would come to the events we set up when we were organizing, and he was very supportive,” Stephan said. “But there was a persistent question he would ask us. He would say, ‘My brothers, where are the songs?’ He was always wondering why young folks in the movement weren’t singing.”
“After being in the Momentum training, Jamie and I started to ask that question again,” Stephen continues. “It became clear that songs were a missing ingredient in movement culture. And we realized that maybe this was our part to play within the movement — as musicians and as people who’d been trained by Dr. Harding. And so, when we thought about adding to Momentum, we thought, ‘Okay, our role is to get people to remember the importance of singing, to remember how strong it can make us.’”
Stephen began honing his techniques for teaching people how to revive song culture. He tested lessons in the classroom — he has worked as an elementary school teacher and co-founded the non-profit Youth on Record, which brings musicians to work with young people — as well as in movement spaces, as the Flobots members developed their project NO ENEMIES. Soon, he brought this practice to Momentum, making a pitch to our core team that we needed to train organizers in the art of bringing songs back to our movements.
We were sold. And at the next training, “Why did we stop singing?” was born.
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We are all creators
Once we began incorporating singing into our work, we discovered that there was a great appetite among activists for reviving song culture. But it did take some work to create an environment where people feel comfortable embracing music-making.
One key step was conditioning people to be creators — not passive consumers — of song.
We live in a consumer-capitalist society that trains us to be purchasers and observers, rather than active participants, with regard to the production of art, music and other forms of culture. This is a departure from the norms of almost all ancient cultures, which relied on people to produce their own music and art. The shift has negative effects on social movements, and on democratic society as a whole.
More than a century ago, the composer John Philip Sousa had expressed concern that new technologies of recorded music would lead to the decline of singing in public life. In a statement for a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. in 1906, he argued, “When I was a boy… in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left.”
Sousa feared that we would go from a society in which everyone made art and music on a regular basis to one in which creative output was converted into commodities — products to be purchased by consumers who did not, and increasingly could not, make meaningful contributions to a common culture. In a 2007 talk calling for a revival of creative participation, law professor Lawrence Lessig cited Sousa’s warnings that this would cause people to become isolated from their own capacities to create and recreate culture, shutting down organic avenues for human communication and connection.
What Sousa feared has in many ways come to pass, and it’s why members of social movements must recommit to creating cultures of our own. Movements require unique and meaningful art, history and stories. They need people capable of creating and sharing forms of expression that strengthen subcultures not represented in the mainstream. We can’t rely on the centralized corporations in Hollywood and Nashville that churn out pop commodities to sustain the types of culture needed to further struggle and change.
Across a wide variety of geographies and time periods, many of the most impressive social movements that have emerged are ones that have created their own particular forms of art that are explicitly designed to address this issue. One powerful example comes from Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement — the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST — which includes a form of ritualized theatrical and musical performance known as the mística in all of its major gatherings. Drawing on practices of Christian mysticism, the mística features skits, singing and clapping, ecstatic dance, call-and-response greetings and team-specific chants or gritos, all of which cultivate solidarity and collective identity among its members, while also giving people an embodied experience of the movement’s history and aspirations.
Following such examples, trainers in “Why did we stop singing?” stress the importance of group participation. They emphasize a distinction Harding drew between “songs of performance” and “songs of power.” Harding argued that songs of performance are ones sung by someone onstage or behind a microphone. Such performances can be beautiful and moving, of course; but they lend themselves to commodification — suggesting that music is something to be left to highly trained professionals. By contrast, songs of power are sung together by a group; they are used to strengthen bonds among people who have come together for a common purpose. As Stephen explained, “ Songs of power are about decentralizing the performer and centralizing the people and the needs of the moment.”
The beauty of group singing is that no one person has to be particularly good; people just have to be willing to open their mouths and sing. In a movement, there is no need to demonstrate virtuosity, and so the training encourages people to “turn down their diva” and look for opportunities to encourage everyone to join in. “When we started doing the module, the number one thing that I saw was joyful participation,” Stephen said. “Coming from a teaching background, that’s always an indication for me that learning is happening.”
“I want people to experience singing together and feel what that does and how that changes the room,” he added. “And that’s one of the main things the training does. You see people move from whatever states they are in to having a feeling of unity. They’ve gone through something together. You can feel that, and that’s what tells me it’s working.”
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Four key benefits of song culture
Stephen often talks about music and group singing as a piece of movement “technology,” an advanced tool that can enhance our capabilities in several distinctive ways, provided we practice its use. As Momentum has developed “Why did we stop singing?” over the years, a talented group of trainers with roots in a diverse set of movements — including Michael McDowell of the Movement for Black Lives, James Hayes of the Ohio Student Association, Dani Moscovitch of IfNotNow, Akin Olla, who has worked with Dream Defenders and the United States Student Association, and Momentum Training Director Cicia Lee — fleshed out four key benefits that the technology of song culture offers to social movements: Songs connect us to history; they allow us to resonate together as a group; they are a clear and compelling form of messaging; and they make actions suck less.
First, songs allow us to connect with history — both on political and personal levels. In terms of political history, singing connects us with previous movements that have adopted song culture as a means of strengthening their resistance. In labor history, the Wobblies were famous in the early 1900s for adapting songs already in the folk tradition and turning them into pro-worker anthems — just as in the 1960s, activists in the civil rights movement converted Gospel hymns into the “freedom songs” that famously powered their actions.
There is a caricature that singing activists of the past were hippies who naïvely imagined a world of peace and harmony. But in fact, the use of song could reflect a hard-headed realism, recognizing that cultural expression is essential in helping movement participants form the strong bonds needed to organize in challenging and sometimes dangerous situations.
“Whenever somebody jokes about ‘Kumbaya,’” Harding said, “my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting coworkers to come from all over the country, especially student types, to come and help with the process of voter registration and Freedom School teaching, and taking great risks on behalf of that state and of this nation.”
Pointing to the radical history of the song, which comes from the Gullah Geechee people, Harding insisted that collective singing was more than just an aesthetic pleasure, and far different from the toothless exercise it’s sometimes portrayed as by critics.
While the songs we sing today can be new and different — reflecting cultural lineages that are always evolving — the very act of participating in movement song culture ties us to those who have advanced the struggle for freedom and justice in previous generations. “When we sing a song and we learn the history behind it, it’s like a connective tissue to those who came before us,” Stephen said. “We’re locating the struggle that the song came out of, and then we’re adding to that story. We’re finding ourselves in that lineage.”
In terms of personal history, reviving song culture in our movements can be a way of encouraging us to remember and rediscover songs that are part of our family and cultural histories. Many of Momemtum’s trainers who are first- or second-generation immigrants have shared stories about how much their families had to give up in order to survive in coming to the United States. For some, it has meant forgetting the songs that their grandparents sang. Rediscovering those songs and reviving them in the present can be a powerful way of honoring cultural traditions from which we have become estranged.
In “Why did we stop singing?” trainers point out that there is a culture of silence in the United States and a norm of singing only when we can’t be heard — like in the shower or the car. Accepting the social imperative to remain silent means erasing our collective history. Leaders in the Momentum training contend that most history books are written to erase the history of dispossessed groups who have fought for power in the past. Singing together can help restore our connection to that shared history.
A second key benefit of group singing is that it allows us to resonate with one another as a community: physically, emotionally and spiritually. As the term implies, social movements are a social experience. They require interacting with others and coming together in joint purpose. A great deal of a movement’s effectiveness is based on how well the people in it can connect with one another. In this context, singing is a singularly effective piece of movement technology. When we speak, and even more when we sing, our bodies emit vibrations. By singing we can express and channel the emotions of the moment more profoundly and lastingly than we can through speech alone. By producing the same sounds and vibrations at the same time, groups of people literally can get on the same wavelength with one another, creating a profound collective experience.
People who have studied the way that music works in religious communities have observed that activities such as chanting magnify a group’s power by concentrating its voice into one chord and one breath. In Science and Spiritual Practices, biologist Rupert Sheldrake writes, “One advantage of repetitive chanting, or of singing simple songs in unison, is that everyone can join in, even if they think that they do not have a good voice or cannot sing in tune.” He adds, “No doubt this experience of connection and unity is a major reason for the use of chanting and singing in practically all traditional societies, communities and religions.” Likewise, the theologian Cynthia Bourgeault explains in Chanting the Psalms that chanting and singing can help bind together a “far-flung group of human beings” via “what is most simple and universal in the human experience — breath, tone, intentionality and community.”
“Singing allows people to shift emotional states, and it does it very quickly,” Stephen said. “If you watch a movie, it might take two hours to deliberately shift through emotional states. A book can do that a few times, but it takes a few hundred pages. A song can do it in 90 seconds. It can do it when just a few people are together, or for thousands of people. In the course of an action you can take people through the emotional states of where your community is at and then move to where they want to be. Better than almost anything else, songs affirm our emotions and also take us someplace aspirationally. That’s something that needs to be employed for our communities that are hurting and disempowered.”
Third, songs can be a powerful and succinct form of messaging — allowing movements to convey ideology, slogans, ideas and demands in a particularly memorable way. As an elevated form of chanting, songs can evoke strong emotions, including feelings of solidarity, freedom, pleasure and joy, much more quickly than pamphlets or speeches. Joining with others to sing out loud and in public is a radical assertion of purpose, humanity and will. It’s a way of saying, “We are here, and we know what’s at stake and what we stand to gain — or lose.” It’s also a way of audibly demonstrating that we are in this struggle together.
A fourth power of singing as a movement technology is that it lends energy and spirit to protests that might otherwise seem lifeless and repetitive. Or, as Momentum trainers put it more bluntly: Singing makes actions suck less. In “Why did we stop singing?” a presenter asks, “Who’s ever been to a shitty action?” There are always immediate laughs and nods of recognition. A lot of demonstrations might have decent turnout — they might even draw a big crowd — and yet they feel dull and uninspired. Singing together changes the emotional depth and power of an action, helping to make them into fun and joyful events. In tense and emotionally fraught moments, it reinforces the group’s common purpose. And, by reinforcing our shared humanity, it reminds us that many voices are more powerful than one.
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How we can bring singing back to our movements
The module pioneered by Stephen and other Momentum leaders has made songs and musical culture a key element of the organization’s ethos, and this same ethos has become a part of many of the groups that our core team worked with — including IfNotNow, Sunrise and Movimiento Cosecha. For some, group singing has been a hallmark of their direct actions. As writer Emily Witt explained in the New Yorker in 2018, “Part of what makes the Sunrise Movement’s activists seem so optimistic is that they conduct most of their protests while singing.” Critics have branded members of groups like IfNotNow “singing zombies,” a charge the group has refuted with Halloween-y humor, posting photos on Twitter of members made up to look like zombies posing with signs with quips such as, “Sh*t, I’m a singing zombie while all my friends are having fun on Birthright.” In the end, the ability of singing to evoke derision from opponents only highlights the potency of the technology.
So how can more movements get their songs back?
One main piece of advice is, “Just do it.” The more people are in the habit of singing together, the easier it becomes. Trainers in “Why did we stop singing?” coach that putting songs back in our meetings and actions is like riding a bicycle: Once you get in the habit of doing it again, you realize that you never really forgot. And in this case, it’s not just our bike, but the bike our ancestors rode, and it’s just waiting for us to dust off, tune up and get moving.
To help the process along, it is important to inoculate participants against natural feelings of awkwardness and self-consciousness. A good way of doing this is to ask people in a meeting, “Does it matter if you’re a good singer?” As people immediately answer “No!” it gives license to people who may be worried that they can’t carry a tune to participate fully regardless of their talents. For his part, Stephen has always contended that singing in a movement context is the opposite of trying out for “American Idol.” “We try to destigmatize the idea of people raising their voice by saying that if we’re singing together, then the sound of all of our voices is what we will hear,” Stephen said. “It’s not just one person, and we’re not doing this as a show. We’re doing this to connect.”
With the initiative of organizational leaders such as Ilana Lerman, IfNotNow worked to codify many best practices for leading and teaching songs, and the group now provides its local groups with concrete tips on how to maximize their impact. One important practice is always having the words to each song written up in a format that’s easy to access and distribute. Another is having people share information about a song’s origins — where it comes from or what it means to them — when they teach it to others, which can serve both to show respect for forebears and inspire a deeper connection to the music. During group singing, leaders can assign roles to facilitate participation, having some people guide the melody, others focus on keeping the beat, and still others nurture group energy. Finally, it can sometimes be powerful to invite people to enter into a moment of silence afterwards, to let the song land and give participants an opportunity to feel its impact.
Over time, groups develop a repertoire of songs they can draw from, and having favorites that can be repeated provides a great foundation for a movement’s song culture. These do not have to be the freedom songs of old. While many people are intimidated by the idea of coming up with entirely new tunes, remixing popular songs is a way of drawing on our common cultural heritage and connecting people with something familiar. “People say, ‘Well, I’m not a brilliant songwriter.’ And I respond, ‘You don’t have to be, because so many of the songs from movements in the past have been popular songs that were repurposed. I talk to people about how we can do that now and how easy it is,” Stephen explained. “We’re taking something that’s in the culture and adapting the meaning, so that it represents us.’”
When you start looking, it becomes clear that there are many such songs to choose from: choruses and catchy hooks that originated in songs of performance can become songs of power when adapted by movements. Once people are given a chance to make lyrics of their own in an environment that’s fun and supportive, the creativity flows.
Participants in trainings have improvised new, protest-inspired lyrics to everything from “Call Me Maybe” to “Single Ladies.” On the streets, fresh anthems from Janelle Monae’s “Say Her Name” to Chance The Rapper’s “Blessings” have found their way into mass marches, just as refrains like Kendrick Lamar’s “We gon’ be alright” and Beyoncé’s “You won’t break my soul” have been adapted as protest chants. For the holidays, climate activists have updated “Frosty the Snowman” into a cautionary tale, and anti-racists have transformed “Silent Night” into “Silent Whites.” In the hands of striking teachers in West Virginia, Ludacris’s 2012 hit, “Move B*tch Get Out Da Way” became “Move, Mitch, get out the way” — a denunciation of State Senate President Mitch Carmichael.
“Activists in Ohio flipped Lil Jon’s ‘Aww skeet skeet god damn’ to be ‘Our streets, streets, god damn,” Stephen said. “I tell people. ‘It could be Taylor Swift. It could be Young Thug. It could be any of those things.”
The work of reviving song culture is not just about bringing music back to activist spaces. It is only one part of a broader effort to reinvigorate a type of communal culture that can sustain social movements over the long haul. But revitalizing singing is a critical and, for many, a natural place to start. Most people have memories of singing with others at home, in school, or in a place of worship — they have experienced how meaningful it can be as part of a social or spiritual community. By restoring a culture of song, movements can give their members a chance to fulfill this common human desire, and to become stronger and more cohesive in the process.
“One thing I ask is, ‘What is the price of not doing this?’” Stephen said. “When people are looking at our movements years from now, are they just going to be looking at a bunch of Google Docs? We want them to have something more than that. We want them to be able to sing the songs that we sang — to be part of our understanding, part of our culture.”
Thinking about the start of “Why did we stop singing?” Stephen reflected on how nerve racking it was the first time they did the module, but also on how it proved to be a great success. “It just struck a chord. I had thought that I would need to spend far more time trying to convince people about the importance of songs and why this shift in culture needed to happen,” he said. “But it turned out that I didn’t really have to make an intellectual argument. Once we started talking about what had been lost, it was like people’s souls were crying for the opportunity to sing together.”
Research assistance for this article provided by Raina Lipsitz. Interested readers can sign up for Momentum’s mailing list and learn about upcoming trainings here. Photo credit: Tony Webster via Flickr.