In the third and final part of their protest singing series, Liz and Jacqui talk to four activists and singers about protest music in the Black Lives Matter movement. They cover kids and their phones, Zoom choirs in the time of COVID, Kendrick Lamar's 'Alright,' club bangers, viral hits from unlikely sources, and the idea that we are imbued by our very humanity with a right to sing... and protest. NOTE: This episode contains song clips with unbleeped lyrics.
Jacqui and Liz are extremely grateful to their guests for the rich and illuminating discussion of the current state of protest singing within the Black Lives Matter movement. Thank you Micah Hendler, Nikki Nesbary, Caullen Hudson, and Patrice Rhone.
Micah Hendler is a musical changemaker, and covers music and social change for Forbes. He is the founder and artistic director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus.
Nikki Nesbary is an experienced facilitator, trainer, and program manager. She is a singer and leadership team member with SongRise, a DC-based women's social justice a cappella group.
Caullen Hudson is a filmmaker, activist, and founder of SoapBox productions and organizing. He is a scholar and producer of the feature documentary Chicago Drill ‘n’ Activism, and produces and co-hosts the Bourbon ‘n BrownTown podcast. Check out their Collective Freedom Project, a four-part series highlighting grassroots efforts in Chicago, Atlanta, Texas, and California to fight crimmigration.
In addition to her digital activism, Patrice Rhone is a fashion fanatic, marketing professional, and blogger. She will also be rocking some classic 80s Madonna and Whitney with Jacqui and Liz at our next karaoke party.
On the march: is communal protest singing poised for a comeback? by Micah Hendler, Jun 13, 2020
Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell
Marching and Singing with Ysaye Barnwell - Black Lives Matter, YouTube, uploaded Jun 9, 2020
Lift Every Voice and Sing by the Spellman College Glee Club, YouTube, Feb 28, 2019
Lift Every Voice and Sing by SongRise, Juneteenth Solidarity Sing, YouTube, Premiered Jun 20, 2020
Tupac interview about food in hotel, YouTube, uploaded Dec 29, 2012 (from Tupac: Resurrection)
This is what protest sounds like by Breeanna Hare, November 19, 2017
Anti-maskers, the alt-right, and leftist messaging by Paula Ethans, October 20, 2020
Anti-vaccine protesters are likening themselves to civil rights activists by Mackenzie Mays, Sep 18, 2019
Justice Choir https://www.justicechoir.org/
Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" chanted by protesters during Cleveland police altercation by Jeremy Gordon July 29, 2015
Has Kendrick Lamar recorded the new Black national anthem? by Aisha Harris, Aug 3, 2015
Kendrick Lamar - Alright
Reverend Gary Davis ~ I'll Be Alright Someday
Pete Seeger - We Shall Overcome (Live)
You About to Lose Your Job (Original Remix), YouTube, uploaded Jun 4, 2020
Chief Keef "Faneto"
Ludacris - Move Bitch
Black Lives Matter and Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection, Edited by Fernando Orejuela and Stephanie Shonekan, from Indiana University Press
The World in Six Songs by Daniel J. Levitin, from Penguin Random House
I'm Gon' Stand sung by Nikki Nesbary
I'm Gon' Stand by Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey In The Rock, SongRise, YouTube, uploaded Nov 23, 2016
Jacqui Clydesdale 0:03
A quick heads up for our listeners: today's episode contains some music with some unbleeped lyrics, just FYI.
Liz Walker 0:14
Hi I’m Liz Walker
Jacqui Clydesdale 0:15
And I'm Jacqui Clydesdale.
Liz Walker 0:17
And this is Choral Fixation. Digging deep, asking the important questions about singing together,
Jacqui Clydesdale 0:22
Like why do people do it, and why don't they? And when? And where? [laughter] And what do they do if COVID hits and they can't sing?
Liz Walker 0:30
Basically the 5 Ws of good journalism.
Jacqui Clydesdale 0:33
Yeah, that's right, yeah the 5 Ws of good journalism, just focused on one nerdy topic and also... we're not journalists.
Liz Walker 0:39
We're not journalists.
Jacqui Clydesdale 0:40
Yeah, we're really not journalists
Liz Walker 0:41
We're enthusiasts. Today we have the final episode in our series about protest singing. Back in January we started with an overview of the historical context.
Jacqui Clydesdale 0:51
That's right, and then we moved on to a deep dive into "We Shall Overcome," the singalong anthem of the labor and Civil Rights movements of the 20th century.
Liz Walker 1:00
And that brings us to here and now. We're interested in the way singing is employed or not, in the modern day protest movement and there have been actions going on all around the world...
Jacqui Clydesdale 1:11
all around the world
Liz Walker 1:12
Hong Kong, Poland, Ukraine,
Jacqui Clydesdale 1:15
Liz Walker 1:15
Lebanon, yep. India, Palestine, and we decided to keep our focus closer to home, with the protest movement that is a driving force for change here in North America: Black Lives Matter.
Jacqui Clydesdale 1:26
That's right, Black Lives Matter protests have been a part of the public life of really every major North American city for the past seven or eight years. They have been necessary to repeatedly and consistently push back against the police departments, and members of the public, who have been killing Black people on the street. Specifically, I had originally thought that this was specifically since the murder of Mike Brown, but it goes back further. When George Zimmerman
Liz Walker 1:53
Jacqui Clydesdale 1:54
was let off
Liz Walker 1:55
Jacqui Clydesdale 1:56
for Trayvon Martin. Yeah, that's right. So, you know, it continued last year with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others and more people got out into the streets and all that hurt and anger and frustration was revisited again out the streets
Liz Walker 2:14
With people out in the streets en masse, our curiosity was about how music fits into these protests
Jacqui Clydesdale 2:21
That's right so we spent the better part of the last year, digging into and investigating protest singing and as it turns out, we ended up shaking up and upending a lot of our own assumptions about singing in the streets, sing alongs, protests.
Liz Walker 2:36
What it means,
Jacqui Clydesdale 2:36
What it means.
Liz Walker 2:37
How it's done, you know, we talked to singers and activists and regular folks who are involved in different ways in the movement for Black lives and we learned about what resistance looks like and sounds like these days.
Jacqui Clydesdale 2:48
And about who's joining in, and what they're singing, and when it comes right down to it, we've learned a lot about both music making and myth busting.
Liz Walker 2:56
Over the course of this episode, you're going to hear from four people who are involved in Black Lives Matter: singing, protests, activism and social justice and we're gonna let them introduce themselves first.
Jacqui Clydesdale 3:06
That's right. So in June, 2020 Liz sent me an article entitled "On the march: is communal protest singing poised for a comeback?" That was in Forbes, and you can find the link in our show notes. We decided to reach out to the author to start talking about what's going on musically in the streets during protests
Micah Hendler 3:23
I'm Micah Hendler. I'm the founder and artistic director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which is a chorus dialogue program for Palestinian and Israeli young singers from East and West Jerusalem. I also write about music and social change for Forbes.com. I've just seen over the course of my life that the most powerful experiences that I've had have been the ones that have combined the community building power of music in a context where building community is critical to achieving some sort of social change. Music and specifically the power of singing in groups to create community, to create a sense of shared identity, to create a sense of empowerment and those who are included in that community, because that's just kind of what I experienced growing up. You know when I was a teenager and started a singing group, I saw that I had the ability to create that kind of community for others, and show people that they could sing even if they thought they couldn't sing and that was like a really amazing thing.
Liz Walker 4:26
We talked to both Micah and our next guest, in June and July of 2020 in the wake of the protests of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's murders.
My name is Nikki Nesbary, I actually work in the conservation field. But, and also am an avid and longtime singer. So, most recently for the past eight years I've been singing acapella with a group called SongRise. We are a DC based women's social justice acapella group. And I guess one of the things that really compelled me is that our mission is to inspire action through song, and we try to embody that and live that and sort of challenge ourselves to see how we can, not reinvent, but how we can push that mission forward, you know, during changing times. This being definitely one of those, those historic times, you know, where this type of justice music is needed.
Liz Walker 5:27
So both Mike and Nikki are based in Washington DC, and most recently we talked to a friend of a friend, based in Chicago.
Caullen Hudson 5:34
Yeah, totally. Thank you for having me. I'm excited to dig into this conversation. My name is Caullen Hudson I'm a filmmaker, activist, podcast host, and founder of Soapbox Productions and Organizing, which is a film and social activism nonprofit specializing in multimedia storytelling through structural social change. But I've always been wrestling with these ideas of anti-Blackness, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, as well as the challenges to that, both in a very traditional sense as far as activism, organizing entities, people doing, you know, what we think of activism, but also very nuanced micro level, ways to challenge systems and internalize the harms that we that we tend to do growing up in a, a increasingly anti-Black, capitalist world. How do you find that back, fight back and use that within ourselves and our community in those broader ways that we see and kind of sensationalize about when we say, "activism"?
Jacqui Clydesdale 6:34
And a little closer to home, we talked to someone right here in Toronto.
Patrice Rhone 6:38
So my name is Patrice Rhone. Jamaican background, but born here. Interestingly enough, I was actually raised Catholic and had to sing a lot of hymns and stuff during school. I actually was in a choir as well when I was in grade school; went to a Catholic school from kindergarten to grade eight. I had a lot of friends I also went to like Baptist churches as well. Something to keep or my mother used to keep her children occupied so we basically kind of went to two churches and we were involved in, or I was involved in, both choirs. It's interesting to be able to have this conversation about how music and protest and all these things kind of connect. So that's my background, and I, just for work, I work in marketing, and I sell booze, started advertising and now I work for a distributor saying, "Hey, do you want some Aviation Gin?" You know, that's a nice plug you know, get your your Aviation Gin.
Jacqui Clydesdale 7:30
We had some great conversations with these four people and we're gonna bust open some misconceptions that we, the traditional choir nerd types,
Liz Walker 7:37
Jacqui Clydesdale 7:37
had about modern day protest singing and that maybe you do too.
So to kick things off, Micah told us about bringing Dr Ysaye Barnwell to a protest last year in Washington. If you're not familiar with Dr Barnwell, she's an absolute powerhouse: she's an activist, a singer. She's a violinist, a composer, and she conducts community choral workshops and she designs them and leads them, and she also was a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock, which is this legendary [right] performance ensemble. Yeah, the African American, you know, ensemble that does a lot of like acapella type stuff but
Liz Walker 8:22
Jacqui Clydesdale 8:23
Really stunning, beautiful stuff. So she, she and Micah had worked together before. He, I think had studied with her at one point...
Liz Walker 8:30
That's right, yeah. He calls her his mentor,
Jacqui Clydesdale 8:33
That's right. And she told him that she wasn't hearing much singing at the protests on the news, so she and Micah joined forces at a Black Lives Matter protests last June. And here's what happened.
Micah Hendler 8:45
Then we met at DuPont Circle and, you know, helped to get people singing. And that was really amazing, you know, to be, like, doing this work on the street in the context, like, really, to walk the, you know, to walk the song, as it were. And if you're trying to communicate something that is going to move people, probably going to be way more effective if you have all the tools available to you, than if you're stuck with just what people can yell. And so I think people were really excited because you know the difference between saying "Black lives matter." And then, singing it the way that Dr Barnwell just kind of made up, spontaneously: "Black lives matter. Come on, Black, lives matter, we're going to sing it one more time. Come on." It's, like, completely different.
(singing) Black lives matter, black lives matter...
Jacqui Clydesdale 9:54
So Liz and I thought about it, and were, like: Are people joining in? Or aren't they? How are they participating here?
Liz Walker 10:01
You know, the fact that we can share the video with our listeners actually tells us quite a bit.
Micah Hendler 10:05
Right? Now that we have smartphones, and everyone can basically film stuff and put it on social media, like it just distances us from our own experience of everything. Because we're thinking about how is it going to live on, you know, beyond this moment and we're not thinking about what am I actually doing in this moment, am I actually part of this moment? It's like, oh I have to fim it so that, like, for the next, like, infinite number of moments, I've had it. And it's a way of amplifying and there are all kinds of things that are amazing about it, and I do this too. I'm not saying like, "Oh, the folks who are on social media..." like I also do this. It's just how it works. But folks are way more comfortable filming than singing along.
Liz Walker 10:51
Oh, the folks on social media, Jacqui. [laughter]
Jacqui Clydesdale 10:56
Liz Walker 10:56
That's what we were thinking.
Jacqui Clydesdale 10:59
Yeah. That's right.
Liz Walker 11:00
It's one of our pet peeves and we're, like, grouchy old ladies, you know,
Jacqui Clydesdale 11:03
Liz Walker 11:03
Why are you looking at your phones? But you know, okay, the fact is the singing is happening, and it is being shared.
Jacqui Clydesdale 11:09
And other online experiences contribute to the overall experience of protesting too. So for example, Nikki was looking for a way for her choir, SongRise, to contribute to the protests in June of last year, so 2020, but was also recognizing like with COVID, an in-person event wasn't really possible. [right, yeah] So she did what a lot of choir people have done in the past year... I think you've been doing this sort of thing with your choir, right, Liz?
Liz Walker 11:34
Jacqui Clydesdale 11:35
Liz Walker 11:35
Jacqui Clydesdale 11:36
You gotta organize that virtual sing along. [Yeah] So she got together with the participation of Chorus America to set up a sing along, you know, around the world essentially on June 19 which is Juneteenth, the holiday celebrated to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States, and they sang an incredibly beautiful song called Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is widely regarded as the Black national anthem.
Spellman College Glee Club 12:09
(singing) Lift Every Voice and Sing...
Liz Walker 12:18
You know, Nikki told us the importance of video sharing for people at protests, and for people who are participating at home, because like many folks who have been doing this Zoom choir thing for a year, myself included, we actually talked a lot about like the work of deconstructing a live choir [lotta work] and then reconstructing it digitally so that people can share it. It is a lot of work to do, and so that was her goal to get people to sing together.
Nikki Nesbary 12:57
But I guess that I would look at it from the perspective of, there hasn't been that much music, over the past few months anyway, because of the health concerns around COVID. And so when people do see folks singing, I think it is good for people to be videotaping or like live streaming, because it's showing that there are people out there that are singing and trying to inspire people in that way. And again, y'know, this is, we all can only do as much as we individually can to, to protect ourselves in terms of wearing masks and other precautions around not, like, spreading or getting illness but I think, yeah, I think that people... there are lots of ways to engage.
Jacqui Clydesdale 13:48
So risks at a protest aren't just limited to things like COVID and illness, which is something that Patrice really hammered home for us.
Patrice Rhone 13:57
So just with the... I don't know. I'm just gonna say it: as a Black woman fighting so many different societal norms, I actually felt kind of afraid or scared to actually go to the protests, but I still wanted to support. And the reason for that is, like, the multiple hats and physically performing like actually like getting involved in singing and having other people around, and then the performance of having to work and all these type of things all together actually made me really really really hesitant to actually support like physically be at a protest. It's hard enough for Black people and people of colour just to exist, much less to contribute to the movement, because there's a lot more at stake than just, like, what if you get arrested? Like these are all the things this was like I almost over... I over thought so much, or I was overthinking so much about participating because as a Black woman it's so important for me to represent my people, but at the same time, I can't take the risk of getting arrested. I can't take the risk of violence against someone like me, which, I'm 5'10", a dark-skinned Black woman who's curvy, I actually could be a target too, so... all this talking just to say is that protesting to a certain extent, and participating, to a certain extent, is a privilege. I kind of, weirdo, just been watch, binge-watching things on YouTube and Instagram and all that type of stuff.
Liz Walker 15:26
So here, we were thinking, "Oh kids on their phones, and they're filming, and they're not participating, [Sing along!] they're not singing." Yeah, [Why aren't you singing?]. Please participate the way we think that you should be singing, [That's right] You know, and but, but instead they are sharing the experience with millions of people at home, like Patrice, who can't risk having her body out there, you know?
Jacqui Clydesdale 15:47
Yeah, she really drove home for us, how many people are living their resistance every day, and how exhausting that is, and how much that little screen, that weird little viral Tiktok video, how much that's bringing joy and anger and energy to people in their homes.
Liz Walker 16:05
You know, Caullen told me, people at home, they're doing the protest work, too: they're tweeting updates, they're, they're [yeah of course] sending developments to marchers, they're documenting badge numbers, documenting incidents. It wasn't until I read my own words that I realized: Oh my gosh, I am bringing a lot of baggage to this conversation.
Jacqui Clydesdale 16:20
Yes, that's right, absolutely. Singing the way we think they should be. And we really we want to unpack that so that's why we started here talking about social media, and here on Choral Fixation, the podcast all about people singing together, we want to explore that and maybe illustrate that for you, hopefully.
Liz Walker 16:43
Yeah, we're gonna look at all the different ways because somewhere along the line. I brought my feelings [mmhmm] about what is righteous and appropriate to bear on how I was viewing the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
Jacqui Clydesdale 16:55
Last year when we started talking about this, we immediately thought about "We Shall Overcome."
Liz Walker 16:59
Right, it's a protest classic. But we learned that while its reputation is still solid, and it's still considered a 20th century classic, its use is definitely fading.
Caullen Hudson 17:08
You know it's funny because that song is (singing) "We shall overcome. We shall overcome." And what do they say? "Some day." We're not waiting on "some day" anymore. When I think about this conversation, I think about this Tupac interview. I believe it's in the Tupac: Resurrection movie.
Tupac Shakur 17:32
Y'know, if I know that in this hotel room they have food every day, and I've knocked on the door every day, to eat. And they tell, and they open the door, Let me see the party. Let me see like them throwing salami all over. I mean just, like, throwing food around. They're telling me there's no food in there. Y'know what I'm sayin'? Every day. I'm standing outside trying to sing my way in. Y'know what I'm sayin'? (singing) "We are hungry, please let us in. We are hungry, please let us in." After about a week, that song was gonna change: "We hungry. We need some food." After two, three weeks it's like: "Give me that food, or I'll break in that door." After years I mean just like, y'know what I'm sayin'? I'm picking the lock, coming through the door, blasting. It's like, you hungry, you reached your level, you don't want anymore. We asked 10 years ago. We was asking with the Panthers. We was asking with them, y'know, with the Civil Rights Movement. We was asking. You know, now that those people that were asking they're all dead and in jail. So now what do you think we're gonna do? Ask?"
Jacqui Clydesdale 18:32
There's a story we talked about in our last episode. It's all about the protests after Michael Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson got up and tried to lead the crowd in "We Shall Overcome," and the crowd was not having it.
Caullen Hudson 18:52
You know, not not to put shade on Jesse Jackson, at least not in this podcast but, you know, back in the day, in the 60s, 70s, we can even say 80s 90s, y'know the straight male, cis, charismatic figure was kind of the stalwart of the Civil Rights, who we think of. Um, um, I will say this: the Ella Bakers and Angela Davises, there's lots of women and nongender conforming folks and y'know, gay folks and other people doing the work, but we think of Civil Rights, we think of MLK, we think of Malcolm X. Those, are kinda how we though about it, and in addition to that, order of these things is a very hierarchical structure. Whereas now, who do you see the forefront? You see Black women, femmes, LGBTQ plus folks, trans folks out there, disabled folks out there. Like, they're not only doing their work and visible because they always have been, but they're taking up the most space, and they should and they're the most marginalized in the Black community within other communities that they're disenfranchised. So I think it's, it's, it says so much, that Jesse Jackson was like, "Why isn't this song working?" Because we're not trying to overcome someday. We're trying to overcome now. I think another layer to this is that rap didn't exist in the 60s and 70s, right? And so we think about pop culture and how that evolves, especially Black popular culture and how that evolves. And that gets more unapologetic and things that you know, older Black folks or Black folks with some, some class privilege may think, "I'm not like that." We're pushing back on that and how that codifies the same systems we're trying to overthrow and and build up something new. I was saying before, I think movements, y'know, and I think we work on the shoulders of our ancestors, right? This isn't to say anything against the Civil Rights movements or the Black power movements by any means, but, you have to look at things and what worked, what didn't work in the past. But a lot of the work back then was around, around voting. We know now and knew then, too, that that's not going to get us to liberation. Because of them right? So we're standing on the shoulders but also critiquing them trying to build better at the same time so it's complex, and it's nuanced but you need to have that holistic analysis in order to make beautiful movements and I think we're seeing it today.
Jacqui Clydesdale 21:13
So a quick Google search reveals that a lot of the media does not portray Black Lives Matter, or these protests from the past six, seven years, as beautiful, and the mainstream media is confused and has a short memory, and so they're confused by the anger they see right? And, you know, they look backwards, at the frozen news reel of history and they say, "Why does today's protest movement look so different? Why doesn't it sound or feel, you know, safe and whatever, you know, noble and beautiful like it did in the Civil Rights era?"
Liz Walker 21:46
Right. We shall overcome, huh? Did they? Didn't they? Did we? [yeah] You know, it was a long time ago and the corporate interests that underlie modern media they're too happy to present like this over and done narrative, you know [that's right] and and and and I think, you know as white people we really, really bought that like, [for sure] look at what we did look at what happened.
Jacqui Clydesdale 22:09
And that's where we started on [yeah] this journey when we were talking about protests because like we saw the cachet of that song in the movement and it sounds transcendent
Yeah. And historical
And historical. And it feels comfortable, yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure.
Liz Walker 22:21
You know, it's so funny, Jacqui, like we, we know representations of the Civil Rights movement, [mmmhmmm] especially in the nostalgic Boomer media of our childhood, which we were soaked in [yeah for sure] it erased so much of the work like the groundwork and the practice of protests, you know, especially because we know it was done by women. [right. yep] I still made that our point of comparison when it came to looking at what was happening right in front of us with Black Lives Matter.
Jacqui Clydesdale 22:47
That's right. And we've been told, the Civil Rights Movement is a complex subject for a lot of young Black activists. It's got a lot of cultural weight, still, and a lot of cultural capital. But some of that is very painful in retrospect.
Patrice Rhone 23:00
You... at that time had to be of a certain status. Okay, so you want to be a respectable black person so that you can fit into certain spaces. So, what Dr. Martin Luther King represented was he's an example of a Black man, that should be involved or should be allowed in certain spaces because he was educated, he was a religious figure and there's all of this almost tried to turn people into perfect. Like, you have to be the perfect Black person in order to be provided with certain rights. And I think again, that's why things are so different is because we need people to represent the people. We're not all perfect. We do have our flaws. Nonetheless, we still deserve to have certain rights, and we deserve to be treated fairly. And I think when you started bringing that up I was just like, trying to bite my tongue not to jump into it because when you're not, when a system is built and you're not into consideration, or it's built to block you out, you then try to mimic and be that person so you can say, "Hey, I deserve to be in this space." Now, I think it's like if I'm queer and my head is shaved and my... I have tattoos or whoever as I am, I still deserve to be treated fairly, and I'm going to protest within my community and also that's where the regionality and all these things come together. You do not need to be a perfect, idyllic Black person in order to deserve to be treated and treated well and to be protesting, and I think that's the difference between the 50s and 60s, or even further back, you had to fit into the societal norm or at least aspire to be like that in order to be heard by institutions.
Liz Walker 24:42
So the institutions they weren't listening to anyone who didn't try to look or sound like them, is another way to put that I think. So, "We Shall Overcome" made it into the canon. It's a piece of bonafide American institutional history.
Jacqui Clydesdale 24:57
Liz Walker 24:58
And when you hear it at an anti masker rally, [oh boy] consisting entirely of affluent white people, you know something is terribly wrong.
Jacqui Clydesdale 25:07
It really is. I mean, they're... These... I don't know. These anti-maskers are calling themselves a civil rights movement right? [mmm] Which really speaks to the way white people relate to the idea of civil rights? [yeah] Only as it pertains to their own feelings but not, say, to the actual lives of Black people or migrants or Muslims or LGBTQ plus community or anything like that so it's not their lives, not what they're saying... we, we [laughter] it's, we don't want to spend too much time on this [nope] because we don't want to centre white people that way. So, if you want to go down a weird little rabbit hole of people appropriating Black culture, again, we've got some links in our show notes.
Liz Walker 25:47
Let's let Micah take us back to what's going on with singing at the Black Lives Matter protests these days.
Micah Hendler 25:53
One of the things that Dr. Barnwell was also getting at was that like, you need to organize for these things. You can't just expect that everyone's going to show up and start singing, particularly if there isn't like a common repertoire. Like that's another thing that she was talking about is, like, a lot of the songs in the Civil Rights movement came out of church, and everyone went to church, and everyone knew the songs and at church, you would also, like, sometimes have the organizing meetings, and the organizing meetings for the March were also musical. And, like, you would process the issues by learning the songs, and by coming up with new verses for the songs, and like it was all one integrated process. Then when you go out, it's just like the movement is singing. That's just not just not the way that it's been working today, in the vast majority of cases. And, and there are all kinds of reasons for that, but one of the things that I was trying to highlight in the article are some of the really innovative things that folks are doing to try to bring some of this power back to its moment in history. And that involves folks like the Justice Choir Network, who are, who saw this issue back in like, 2017, when everyone's going to all these protests around immigration, around the Muslim ban, around detention centres, er, right? All of the different issues that have really come to the fore, and no one knew what to sing. And there wasn't music of this moment. And so they commissioned a new songbook called The Justice Choir Songbook with some old classics like "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round." And a lot of new protest music for this moment in history that people wrote for the songbook. And or had written and included in the songbook, and there are Justice Choir chapters popping up all over the country, and I'm actually in the process of really inaugurating a chapter in DC. And that's really awesome and the whole idea of the Justice Choir is not to be a performing group, per se, but to be a core group of people that can encourage and get everybody to sing, and can give, like, to encourage not just in a, like, "Oh, go ahead..." but to like literally give the group, the courage to sing.
Jacqui Clydesdale 28:21
The courage to sing. So, go find your local Justice Choir chapter. They've got, they're going to help you, you know, really experience the music in a way that doesn't put the onus on you, to keep it going, you know what I mean? They're doing the printouts they're doing the, y'know what I mean? [yep] So it's, if that's the kind of experience that you want to have at a protest,
Liz Walker 28:47
They will lead you.
Jacqui Clydesdale 28:48
They will lead you. [yeah] Oh, Micah was so patient with us. [laughter] Right? When he was telling us answers that we just weren't really ready to hear [Nope, that's right] Caullen, when Caullen was talking to you like, he reminded us that the songs have evolved and shifted.
Caullen Hudson 29:01
And with, with the conversation around around singing and the movement... I, it's, it's a question to be had, because I think it can be answered clearly. I think there still is singing in in moving in protest today. I think it's different, right, we're not singing "We Shall Overcome," but there are, are chants, there are songs we will sing all together. I'm thinking about something from last summer where y'know, [??] was singing like, "I can hear my mama singing/ I can't breathe/Calling out the violence of the racist police" and that kind of goes on everyone's kind of singing along with her other things like that that are, that aren't necessarily "We Shall Overcome" but they're very more specific and they're more poignant as far as what we're going to overcome, and what how we're going to actually do it. So I think, short answer is, I think there is still singing. However, I also think it in some capacity is almost kind of unfair question because again, rap music literally didn't exist in the 60s right? And so the pop culture lexicon has shifted dramatically in all kinds of ways especially with, like, music.
Jacqui Clydesdale 30:07
So when it comes right down to it, there are a lot of Black artists, and a lot more songs in the songbook that are more relevant today than Pete Seeger, or [laughter] no surprise. That, that's not a surprise.
Liz Walker 30:19
No, that's right. I mean, okay, so we also got to wondering like has some other song then stepped into the breach, you know, embraced by the protest movements? This is Choral Fixation. It is a podcast about people singing together and we are talking today about protest music. We'll be back in a moment.
[Story Song Podcast promo]
Jacqui Clydesdale 0:16
Thinking about that one song sort of an emblematic song that maybe could take the place of We Shall Overcome. We started hearing about Kendrick Lamar's song, Alright; we heard people chanting and singing it. And it's from his 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, that was huge, some said it was Album of the Year. Definitely came out with people, you know, it came out at a time when people really wanted a voice and were craving probably that kind of message. Liz you heard a story about this and about how it came up at one particular resistance movement right?
Liz Walker 0:50
That's right. So in 2015 there was a conference for black activists in Cleveland, and as it was wrapping up, people were gathered outside and they were saying goodbye, police turned up, and they took a 14 year old child into custody on suspicion that he was drunk. The crowd became very tense because they're very concerned that the child was not going to be safe in police custody course. And for anyone who thinks, well what could happen to a child with cops? You only have to remember that 12 year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by Cleveland Police, a year earlier.
Jacqui Clydesdale 1:21
Liz Walker 1:22
So, people began to gather around, they were pepper sprayed by police, the situation was getting...
Jacqui Clydesdale 1:28
Liz Walker 1:29
Really tense. The child's parent was called and arrived to pick up her son, and then kind of like nothing happened; like, the moment of crisis passed and somebody with a cell phone starts to play, Alright, and then the crowd started to chant along. The crowd was dancing and chatting and they were so relieved that this confrontation with the police had passed without bloodshed, and this detail that I've read in a few places claim that an actual butterfly floated down over their heads and maybe for a brief shining moment it became transcendent...
Jacqui Clydesdale 2:07
Yeah, that's, that's like gives-you-shivers kind of story. Let's check in and see what Nikki has to say about Alright.
Nikki Nesbary 2:16
Yeah, I think I see that song as...since it's a newer song I don't know, like I sort of hesitiate to compare to other things but what I guess what I would say is, it definitely, I guess as a black person, when I hear that song, I feel, like, solidarity with my brothers and sisters who come out to March, who are out there with me and we're chanting that. And more broadly, it's sort of a remembrance that we've been through, incredibly difficult times as a people, difficult challenging horrific, you name it, but we're still here, and we can still move forward and and sort of bring ourselves, and hopefully this country forward, in a way that is more equitable and just and and healthy.
Jacqui Clydesdale 3:08
So it wasn't just us, you know, trying to impose our own narrative on this. Like we heard from other places, and Slate reporter Aisha Harris asked in a 2015 article has Kendrick Lamar recorded the new black national anthem? And if you know it does arguably share a bit of DNA with We Shall Overcome.
Liz Walker 3:26
Okay, let's have a listen to like what it sounds like...
Jacqui Clydesdale 3:47
All right so now take a listen to a clip from Reverend Davis, who we featured in our previous episode. So again, a very jaunty version of I'll Be Allright, a gospel classic. So it's there and like fast forward to 2020 a lot of people are asking if it's the new We Shall Overcome? So we put the question to Caullen and Patrice: is Kendrick Lamar's Alright the new We Shall Overcome?
Caullen Hudson 4:59
I honestly have not heard as much. I think I heard it more so when there was like anti-Trump protests of some sort. It definitely is like having a national event, like being a national protest song somehow. So I definitely think that everything that everything you're reading is definitely on point. Actually, my thinking about, Alright, is--firstly, I love Kendrick Lamar, love that song, love that album. And, but it's very much saying like hey, things are really bad, but we're gonna be okay. Right? Which I think is important, I think you want to have that kind of foundation of like, no matter what obstacles we face matter what, having to react to and under what conditions that are inherently anti-black capitalistic and no matter how many new machines the state makes that kill us, We're going to be alright. I think that's important. So I want to center that. However, I think it's also important to also have songs, and feelings and chance that are directed towards specific goals or specific entities that we want to come back and challenge.
Patrice Rhone 6:14
So to be honest, I am familiar with thesong, I have heard it but I didn't, it wasn't a rallying song I've seen protests. Like that Kendrick Lamar song has been likened to Tupac's music and, and things like that, but again I got to be really honest, that's not the music you're hearing at the protest. You're either hearing content creator generated ,on the spot, remixed music that somebody went viral with, and more joyful songs that have nothing to actually do with protesting, music that's more rhythmic, stuff that just makes you want to dance, that's more what I've seen at protest. And that story, as beautiful as it sounds, was specific to that moment and that is something you want to idolize or turn into the story later? But that's not how things are necessarily working in the streets, in the space, while things are happening.
Caullen Hudson 7:07
Yeah so to the point of one image can't, one person can't represent the movement one song can't. Like that would have been, Yeah, some folks may disagree with that, that may be an inappropriate time to play Fuck the Police, right? Because I think this beautiful example like that's that's a song that talks about the moment, right, that is appropriate for that time.
Liz Walker 7:36
Okay, well you know what Caullen and Patrice are just two people, but they sounded really cautious when I talked to them about Alright. They both said in their own ways, Look, it's a song. It's the story of something that happened. But reality is what's on the streets and myth is what happens online. Caullen said to me, look, To Pimp A Butterfly came up six years ago. A lot has happened, even since then. Lamar released Damn last year in 2020 and, you know, in his three albums, he's really evolved a political position, and Damn pushes back very aggressively on current conditions.
Jacqui Clydesdale 8:23
You're listening to Jackie Clydesdale and Liz Walker, and we are Choral Fixation, you can contact us at Choralfixations (with an S) at Gmail, or you can find us on Twitter at Choral underscore Fixation.
Micah Hendler 8:38
The way that music and singing in particular has been like commodified and the role of music has changed in America, from being something where like, yeah, you would just like go and like sit on your front porch and sing, to now being something that you listen to, that you're a spectator of, like you leave to the professionals. And so just there isn't a lot of space in this culture for communal singing, for people who are not quote unquote musicians, or even quote unquote singers. Like even folks who are musicians who may be virtuoso like trumpet players or whatever, may still say oh I can't sing. You know, there's this whole stigma around it now. And I fundamentally believe that singing is something that just belongs to you by virtue of you being a human being. And some people obviously are super gifted at it. Some folks are like less good at it. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it or they therefore you're not allowed to do it because you're not awesome at it.
Liz Walker 9:48
Yeah, one of the things that I noticed is I feel like now, music has actually been more of a way to gather people, and I haven't noticed so much people singing but there's been like, it's almost been like an outdoor street party and that's what I've noticed with a lot of the protests here. It was interesting to see how people actually kind of turn into a block party versus using music to actually protest.
That's Micah Hendler and Patrice Rhone and they generously sat down to talk to us about the sound of protest, and they, along with Nikki Nesbery and Caullen Hudson. They helped us reframe some of the ways that we had been thinking about singing at protests.
Jacqui Clydesdale 10:26
But to be really clear: we are 100% on board with what Micah just said, which is that singing is something that just belongs to you by virtue of the fact that you're a human. That could really be our tagline, quite frankly. Let's get back to Patrice though because she's got a story about a song from an unlikely source that she heard a lot.
Liz Walker 10:43
As far as the digital protests watching, I actually found that there was a lot of curator content and people were singing it. So for example, I'm not sure if you're familiar with this story, but there was a woman who was arrested by a security guard because she was trespassing at a at a strip club. She went viral because she basically was rapping a song to him saying that he's gonna lose this job.
Patrice Rhone 11:32
I heard that being chanted at multiple different protests, even during the US president election, that song turned into, You about to lose your job and people were literally like jumping up in like getting all excited and hyped on a song that was a creator/viral moment and that's one of the other things I would say is very different with music and protests now. It's more at the moment and organic. And music is being made at the spot, or a viral moment can turn into a song. People remixed it and put a beat to it and it just turned into a major, major, major, major song, through a lot of the protests. And the fact that this was a poor black woman who made this up at the last minute and it turned into a full... It's also showing you how activism in general is changing, and the elements or the vehicles that we're using for activism is changing and it's so ingrained in current moments and raw moments that are turned into music, compared to like say during the Civil Rights Movement, you would have, it would be more of a religious tone. Now this is more protesting in music is more: Let's take somebody's experience, or let's take that moment, and put a beat to it. And that's what we're kind of talking about, hinting at, is that activism has changed, and no longer do we focus on a centralized figure to represen,t especially in music, to represent the struggle. And we're now taking music and turning it into something else that Ludicris song when it first came out was a club track, it was basically like that hype song to get everybody going. In this instance, and I have seen coverage of that song, it's like: we're not putting up with your stuff anymore.
Jacqui Clydesdale 13:50
There's actually a lot of videos like this, because the song, Move Bitch, which was originally recorded by Ludicris has seen a lot of play at protests in the past few years. No one's proposing it's the new black national anthem or anything. So let's play that and Liz describe what you're seeing.
Liz Walker 14:16
You know the thing about this video is that these people are chanting it but there are cops, there's like a line of riot cops in front of them, and the crowd's not moving, they're not moving against the cops. They're, they're the ones saying, move to the cops, and it's so defiant. Another person might call it provocative. But that's why it's so important to remember that there's no law against standing in front of police and seeing a defiant song
Jacqui Clydesdale 14:47
Yeah damn right
Liz Walker 14:47
You are allowed to do that. But, okay, this is where I can imagine a lot of well meaning white people kind of losing their sense of righteousness and their allyship might be challenged by this sort of thing because there's misogyny in the words there's, it's, it's not a comfortable song.
Of course, I think a lot of people would prefer protesters hold hands and sing We Shall Overcome. Right compared to this? Right so didn't like you and Caullen talked a bit about this, about the emotional tone and tenor of like a protest and that sort of sense of singing together?
Right, so he and I talked a lot about Drill Rap, drill rap is the like super local sound of Chicago rap music. And he told me about folks like Chief Keef who is like the most famous kind of drill rapper from Chicago,
Caullen Hudson 15:44
We have songs to the drill rap conversation that are arguably very violent, arguably, you know, misogynisitc, all the isms that we talked about, outside of as a black as you're approaching things that maybe you don't like but are fun or exciting, have some kind of pushback against the state in them. And for me being in Chicago, working with and observing the black youth they're Chicago-based. I think when I heard a lot last summer, especially protests that were black-led hand or black youth-led you heard Faneto by Chief Keef. Chief Keef is a stalwart of social justice but Faneto's a fun song to dance to, and turn up to, right? And it's about us and our joy and so why should we have to do something that others on the house I think that we should we should enjoy? So that's something I was trying to sit in and it's like, look, we want to just, you want to have fun at the same time. And this is just the Chicago song everyone knows. And so I think there's, you know that every song we play on the scene needs to be quote unquote political but on one end, it's all political and the other end. It's going to have some unapologetic pushback against against even just that idea in and of itself, I think, is a win.
Liz Walker 17:17
We really need to interrogate that wish about things that we're comfortable with, when it comes to black lives. We don't have to like this track, no, no, our listeners don't have to like this track. My mom doesn't have to like this track, but we do have to remember to go back again and again and again to the phrase unapologetic blackness. Because Angry Black Lives Matter, loud Black Lives Matter, rude, Black Lives Matter and joyful Black Lives Matter.
Caullen Hudson 17:47
Music especially black music and activism has always kind of toed the line with each other right? We look at like, "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud" with James Brown back in the day, during black power, in the civil rights movement, and then fast forward to today and just certain sounds that are prominent in spaces. So I think like, as time goes on we can kind of do more things and pop culture can be expanded to be a living, breathing lexicon of pushback and challenges. With that, I think the movements kind of do the same thing. We see activists in Chicago for decades, find those same systems that are creating communities, that are having gangs as a byproduct that are maybe contributing to inter-communal violence, but there's bigger stakeholders in play right? And so potentially looking at those two forms of resistance that seemed very different on their face, would come from the same kind of inequality and combat it in a certain way with Black Lives Matter. And shout out, You know, unapologetically black became a kind of coined term. Yeah, they had to decide we're kind of doing a different thing with a similar attitude about it so they're seeing the same things happen at the same time, in the same area is very geo-specific too.
Liz Walker 19:09
Okay, you remember how in our first episode we were talking about protest music. We talked about how familiar songs were rewritten for other public purposes. And this is going back to, like, the medieval period, yeah so and then through the Industrial Revolution. Taking hymns, for taking all this sort of stuff. So Patrice talked to me about people taking songs and content, viral videos, clips from comedians, and then re-mixing them for lack of a better word, because people knew it. It was completely re-purposed for 2020. Yeah, that's right. That's so cool.
The song is taken on a new meeting, which goes back to what I was trying to say before is that activism has changed, protests has changed and music's role in it has changed where it's more kind of organic at the moment, and now the song is, literally, at that moment, and I've heard that song in multiple different protests I've seen coverage of it, and it's turned to it's turned into a different meaning.
And this is really what Caullen was saying, he was redirecting me from looking for a national song, and he was pointing me, just pointing us, towards real lived experiences, you know, people's singing out of their own funny, sad bitter truths.
Jacqui Clydesdale 20:31
Yeah, in the moment and then kind of amplifying all that, yeah.
Liz Walker 20:36
So we really think this is going back to where we started with episode one of our three part sprawling epic about protest songs, Daniel Levitin's Six Songs That Changed The World.
Jacqui Clydesdale 20:46
Oh that's right, yeah,
Liz Walker 20:47
He's looking at protest songs, and so we know that there are songs with a purpose, and we really, we really need to discover ourselves, the purpose is a message, yes but it's usually a message for the singers themselves.It's really about supporting each other and it's giving courage you know; it's reinforcing the barricade. Protests, usually employed songs that people already kind of knew you know they got new lyrics, they got a twist and they became cries of defiance that can spread really really fast.
Jacqui Clydesdale 21:15
Yeah, so those ways of creating a sound and a purpose, really crystallized with, We Shall Overcome, but that purpose has now expanded, and the sound with it, and that's what we've learned on this journey. Yeah, there's, there's joy and there's dancers and hilarity.
Liz Walker 21:31
Yeah and there's anger and there's so much frustration because that's what makes up, it's the totality of black people's lives. That matters that matters and what it sounds like matters, right,
Not just the struggle and the pain and the nobility that's, you know put forth by a media narrative it's you know it's, that's the movements name Black Lives Matter.
So we are seeing old songs, redone, revisited, so that they reach the maximum number of people.
Jacqui Clydesdale 21:59
And new techniques and new strategies to in the moment responses are being amplified hyperlocal sounds are being broadcast further and you know broader, yeah, the entertainment value of potentially viral moment being revisited over and over again.
Liz Walker 22:13
It's not where we thought we were gonna end up when we started this.
Jacqui Clydesdale 22:18
No. No, that's right. Yeah, I thought, I think we both thought we were just going to learn. Oh well. Here's the new We Shall Overcome. Or here's why young people are resistant to singing the old fashioned way, but
Liz Walker 22:32
Right, but maybe there's a whole part. Yeah, absolutely.
Jacqui Clydesdale 22:36
Yeah, but what we learned is A) people aren't necessarily resistant to saying, No, I think they're maybe just a little bit resistant to the old ways of singing and to what maybe people consider a little corny And so instead they're digging deep into things that mean something to them and matter to them. Online lives, which are just as much a part of our real lives, quote unquote, I know we tend to separate them.This is where we see them dovetail as, you know, they realize themselves online as well. So that's something that we tend to dismiss.
Well that's because we are old ladies.
Liz Walker 23:20
That's right, but old ladies can learn new things too.
Jacqui Clydesdale 23:22
That's right and you can too.
Liz Walker 23:25
Thank you for joining us today. We are Choral Fixation we're a podcast about people singing together and this episode was written, produced and edited by me Liz Walker
Jacqui Clydesdale 23:33
And me, Jacqui Clydesdale. Now, huge shout out to our participants today we are so friggin grateful for the amazing conversations we had with you. Thank you so much, Micah Hendler, Nikki Nesbary, Caullen Hudson and Patrice Rhone.
Liz Walker 23:47
Thank you so much for your time and your energy and your love.
Jacqui Clydesdale 23:51
Really appreciated, so take a look at our show notes and find where you can find them online, all their contact info in the show notes. We wouldn't be called Choral Fixation, if we didn't think singing, playing important role in all this so I kind of want to leave us with a little bit of singing, because we really do believe strongly that everyone can sing that that thing that Micah said that we are imbued by our very humanity with a right to sing. That's right, and that it connects people and so we wanted to leave you with something that Nikki told us. She was sharing one of her experiences about being at a protest, so I'm going to I'm going to end with Nikki
Liz Walker 24:28
Give you shivers on the back of your neck.
Nikki Nesbary 24:32
The most meaningful times are when we really feel like we're connecting with our audience, I guess. A more recent kind of larger event, we in 2017, we sang at the Women's March on stage at Freedom Plaza, I believe, and we sang, "I'm going to stand" and I was one of those solo parts for that. And that was, I think that was the first time that we sang when we sort of came out on stage and the song has a lot of conviction, and sort of defiance, of standing up against injustice. It felt like everyone was with us or we were with everyone. I guess it's spirit and body, like in the moment is sort of, it's almost indescribable to just to have like connection with with other people, it's just that connection is very important.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai