Since the beginning days of Peaceful Uprising, music was a critical part of our organizing. At the most stressful juncture of organizing around my trial, we decided that we were just going to have some people singing outside the courthouse the whole time. Anything else would be bonus, but the core would be singing. So we started having song rehearsals instead of planning meetings. That practice of singing together brought us together and inspired us to do more than just have a few folks singing outside the courthouse. By the time of the trial there were nearly 3000 people singing in the street, with marches and trainings as well.
The power of music in movements seemed magic to me. Singing together literally brings us into harmony and reminds us that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. That kind of empowerment is essential believing that we are powerful enough to challenge huge corporations and institutions. Music gets us out of our analytical heads and helps us process the powerful emotions like fear, joy, anger and hope that are inescapable in this work. Music reminds us of our values and principles while we fight for justice. Perhaps that’s why music has been the soul of so many social movements in our history.
But when I left Utah, I realized that the music in Peaceful Uprising didn’t actually happen magically. It happened because people with real musical talent like Lauren Wood, Ashley Anderson and Flora Bernard put in a lot of work to make it happen. When I tried to start a protest choir in Cambridge, folks would ask me things like, “What key is this song in?”, and I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, guess what? That effort quickly fell apart. Music in movements might feel like magic, but it turns out it takes skill and support just like all the other pieces of a movement.
That’s why I’m so excited that singer/songwriter Bryan Cahall will be joining me as my new music director. I first met Bryan after his powerful performance at Appalachia Rising in 2010.
We brought his song “Arise” back to our community in Utah, and a few months later thousands were singing it in the streets.
Then Bryan came out to my sentencing, and his music helped to hold people together in that difficult time. Many of his songs are about sad and difficult things, but part of what his music does is show that we can look at the most horrible parts of our world and make something beautiful out of it. Those songs are an act of resilience.
Since then, Bryan and I have done several workshops and joint events together, with his music and my speeches. We presented together at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, CA, and they talked him into staying there to lead youth programs for a year and a half. After Bryan joined me for an event at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, they invited him back to lead a worship service. When I preached in Brooklyn this winter, the choir at First Unitarian Church learned his song “So Go I” for the service. I even did a solo of his song “Sad Songs” at the Climate Stewardship Summit in Connecticut last year, though I certainly didn’t do it justice.
Our vision for this partnership is that Bryan’s music will enrich all the activism I do. When I’m giving a talk, Bryan can provide music for the event. If I’m guest preaching, Bryan might go out beforehand to work with the church’s choir and music director to learn some of his songs. If we’re protesting, Bryan will help lead the crowd in singing. If I’m helping a community organize for a trial or a campaign, Bryan might go out ahead of me to do some music workshops. And here in Providence, we might make a revolutionary street choir finally happen.
This is a big step up for me, but I will need more support to make it work. This isn’t the kind of thing that the climate movement has traditionally valued with resource support. I don’t know of any climate organization that has a music director. But I think this is the kind of thing that will have to become a higher priority if our movement is going to have the kind of soul necessary to sustain ourselves in these challenging times. So I’m asking folks who are not already monthly sustainers of my work to please sign up today at $10 or $20 a month. For those of you who already donate, please reach out to other folks you know and ask them to join you in supporting this exciting new partnership. If we can show that folks really value this role of music in movements, I’m hoping that other climate organizations will start putting resources into musicians and artists for their campaigns as well.
Update: Given the events of the past week, you might also want to check out Bryan's songs "Goin' Down to Ferguson" and "One Night in Oakland"