Revolution At the Speed of Sound

By Pat Humphries & Sandy O of Emma’s Revolution

We were moving from New York City to the Washington DC area when the events of September 11, 2001 happened. As Pat watched the horrifying news coverage that morning, she started repeating three words in her mind—Peace, Salaam, Shalom—like a mantra. Soon, she was singing them. That Friday night, we sang “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” as we walked in a candlelight vigil through a largely Muslim neighborhood in DC. Two men sitting on a nearby stoop got up and joined the vigil. “We heard you singing ‘salaam’ and ‘shalom’ together. We are Israeli.”

Less than a month later, we went to sing at the first peace march in NYC after 9/11. The theme of the gathering that day was “Our grief is not a cry for war.” As we arrived at the rally, we heard the radio announcement that the Bush Administration had begun the preemptive bombing of Afghanistan. Once on stage, the organizers were preparing to announce the news to the already traumatized crowd and asked us if we had a song that could get everyone singing. We kicked off the march, leading “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” with the Brooklyn Women’s Chorus and percussionist, Robin Burdulis accompanying. 10,000 people sang with us, all the way from Union Square to Times Square. Even amidst the massive news coverage of the bombing, the song was mentioned in The New York Times the next day.

In April of this year, a progressive religious denomination stemming from abolitionist Mormon roots chose “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” as one of the core songs for their new hymnal. To help their 250,000 members learn the song, Community of Christ created a video of congregants from around the world singing the song in English, French and Spanish. They are distributing the video to all their congregations, including those in Korea, Tahiti, Zambia, Haiti, Republic of Congo, and Australia.

“Conspiracy is the act of breathing together,” says our friend and activist musician, Charlie King. Social movements, religious movements, sacred rituals all have one thing in common throughout history: the practice of singing, chanting or speaking together in one voice. There’s a desire for shared experience and people singing together creates a palpable energy of cohesiveness and strength. Even experimental-music icon, Brian Eno, has been singing the praises of, well, singing. In an NPR story recently forwarded on Facebook, Eno writes of the benefits of singing together, including what he calls “civilizational benefits.” He explains, “When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings—to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.” (Eno specifically cites a capella singing, but we think his observations apply to all singing.)

Of course, people won’t sing together unless they’re moved by a good groove, a catchy melody, or perhaps an opportunity for them to improvise and create their own part. By the time we sang “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” that October morning, Pat had added a descant line with additional lyrics and a list of names of cities involved in the on-going Middle East conflict. As we marched those 40 blocks in New York City, a simple song, coupled with the intensity of the moment, made a three-minute song into a three-hour call for peace.

At its best, progressive music as a form is a poetic distillation of a fundamental human need. It’s a process of bringing the news to life

Often, before an event we’re asked to sing at, we research the talking points and create a scenario around them. This spring, we were going to sing a few songs in Cambridge, MA, where Medea Benjamin was giving a talk about her book “Drone Warfare.” In preparation, Pat read an article in Spiegel Online, which exposed that killer drone pilots experience a higher rate of combat stress than conventional fighter pilots. These pilots go to work in an office and conduct drone strikes from their computer. They zero in on their targets, explode the drones, zoom in in high definition to assess the success of the mission, and go home at night to their families. The story fell close to home for Pat because her nephew is a Top Gun—one of the most highly-trained fighter pilots in the world—and, though she’s not privy to the specifics of his work, she could conjure a very personal depiction of that job. “Killing Game” explores the horrors of a distant and mechanized war, and the tormented conscience of a drone pilot. The song minimizes the distance between the listener and other communities, across cultural, religious, racial, and socio-economic barriers. (Stay tuned for a link to hear the song.)

The kind of music we do is sometimes disdainfully characterized as protest music, which misses the point of how essentially human these stories are. We don’t refer to popular music—whatever the genre—as dysfunctional relationship songs or pro-hetero-normative or, often, sexist songs. People just call it music. Ours and other activist songs speak to issues that people care and feel a sense of urgency about. Those working on these issues—whether they see themselves as activists or not—often feel frustrated or alienated, due to the lack of representation of their concerns in society at large. As musicians, we feel similarly frustrated that this music gets marginalized, especially in the corporate media. Songs and stories that reflect these issues serve to support and strengthen our community.

Inciting a sense of possibility creates the energy that fuels the work ahead. We are conscious, in our writing and performing, of the need to maintain a sense of humor, hope, and celebration in the midst of struggle. A concept that our namesake, Emma Goldman, stood—and danced—for. When Emma was dancing at a party, a young colleague criticized her, saying that her behavior betrayed her image as a renowned activist, anarchist, and scholar. Her actual response to him was “Everyone has the right to free expression . . . to beautiful, radiant things,” but it came down through history as her having said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

In addition to concerts, we sing at rallies, lectures, and conferences and we have great respect for the speakers we work with. We could not do our work without their eloquent analyses of the human condition. We are our collective knowledge; it defines our values. Music punctuates those values and is crucial at these events to engage and energize the whole person—heart, mind, and body—providing a powerful linking of the analytical with the emotional, the abstract with the personal. Sometimes people leave an event not knowing why this one stood out among the others; they just know that they’re leaving more inspired.  It’s that alchemy between the spoken word and music. As a Unitarian Universalist minister once said to us, “No one walks out humming the sermon.”

Though not many of us can recite a speech or even a poem from memory, almost everyone can sing a song they love. We hear from people all the time about the ways our songs are meaningful in their daily lives. Among them, they sing our songs at weddings and graduations, in hospice and at births, in jail to maintain a sense of solidarity after civil disobedience, in business ethics class, and to ease the tension in a meeting in Iraq.

From an enduring oral tradition, our songs are part of a steady stream of music that tells real stories and addresses real needs. These songs are tools that make the invisible visible. Renew the weary. Celebrate the victories. They transform cynicism and despair. Make us laugh at the absurdity amidst the challenges. They strengthen our resolve and cause us to tap our feet, clap along, sing and dance our way to a more just and sustainable world.

And, as Pete Seeger said in an NPR interview about one of Pat’s songs:

“The powers that be can control the media but it’s hard to stop a good song.”

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Filed under Art, Music, and Movements, Essay Dialogues

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