The Rebirth of Resistance Choirs
It all began with a message. Or technically, it was a group chat. Rather than blast their group questions and announcements through a never-ending email chain or in the dregs of a Facebook group, the members of the Resistance Revival Chorus use Signal—an open-source, end-to-end encrypted messaging app regularly used by investigative journalists to communicate with anonymous sources—to see who’s available for potential performances. A security-driven messaging alternative may seem like an unusual tool for a group of singers, but then again, the Resistance Revival Chorus is not a run-of-the-mill adult chorus (if such a thing can even exist).
Created in the anger-fueled, politically fiery months following the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the Resistance Revival Chorus, and activist choirs like it, ask one question: can music be a tool for social change? The answer: absolutely.
A protest was in its earliest hours of formation, and the Resistance Revival Chorus was asked to participate. In the days before the aforementioned protest, a horrifying wave of anti-abortion measures had been signed into law in states across the country. Most of the laws banned abortion of any kind, including in cases of rape and incest, after six weeks of pregnancy. Some added other draconian measures, such as trumped-up charges for doctors performing abortions or pregnant women traveling out of state to receive one, to further inhibit those seeking reproductive choice. The ultimate goal of these new laws, as Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, recently told the Washington Post, is to bring the issue of reproductive freedom all the way to the Supreme Court in the hopes of “chipping away” at Roe v. Wade, the case that made abortion legal across the United States.
The urgency of the loss of reproductive rights required an equally urgent “call to arms.” As the singers and other concerned Americans across the country quickly learned, oppositional political forces were not waiting for the change they want. No, they were quietly stripping people of their rights in the blink of an eye. Being able to respond quickly to such changes is paramount.
One member of the Resistance Revival Chorus asked if the others were available for the quick lunchtime protest performance.
“People just start saying, ‘Yeah, I'm in,’ or ‘What time is this?’ It's literally all of a sudden, [where there are] all these people trying to figure out whether they can make it,” says Resistance Revival Chorus member Brooke Williams.
Halfway through the lunchtime rally, word came through of another rally, this time for Planned Parenthood. Discussions began again. Not every group member could attend. Alas, prior obligations and short notice got in the way. But the Signal group chat got the word out to every member, all at once. “It’s enough of us to make it loud,” Williams jokes. Whoever could make it, would. The stakes were just that high.
Protest choirs like the Resistance Revival Chorus are nothing new. They follow in the tradition of music as a direct form of resistance and show of resilience, a tradition that dates back to music itself. Consider the Negro spiritual, which gave comfort to enslaved black Americans and offered guidance for one’s passage to the North. These spirituals were revised for use nearly 100 years later, during the civil rights movement.
In her 2016 paper, “Looking Back Is Moving Forward: The Legacy of Negro Spirituals in the Civil Rights Movement,” Aisha Matthews wrote, “Given the subject matter of the civil rights movement (equality for African-Americans), it is unsurprising that songs of slavery offered a particularly relevant and powerful basis for new material. While the memory of the atrocities produced by slavery is painful at best, the freedom songs that emanated from Negro Spirituals attempted to capture the spirit of oppression and the history of black culture while simultaneously offering a new message of peaceful (and successful) resistance.”
Groups like the Freedom Singers, formed in 1962 in Albany, Georgia, provided a blueprint for the reimagined style of spiritual. Originally a quartet, the Freedom Singers often accompanied the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the influential Civil Rights organization, to marches, protests, and appearances at venues and events like Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, and even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 1963 March on Washington, where group members including Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Charles Neblett led marchers in anthem songs after Dr. King’s famous speech.
Participants in the ‘60s labor movement sang anthems of solidarity to promote the work of unions expand worker’s rights. Even entire genres of music—like hip-hop, which was born out of cultural and socioeconomic struggle, and house, which was a black response to the homophobia of those who mocked disco of the late ’70s—demonstrate the strength of music as a form of direct action.
But contemporary choirs like the Resistance Revival Chorus and Justice Choir offer something different that that of the 20th century: an adaptable, technology-driven, DIY ethos.
The freedom of the internet is alive and well in the protest choir movement. It might have taken years for groups like the Resistance Revival Chorus or the UK’s F*Choir and Deep Throat to gain attention from the wider public. But now leaders of the Women’s March can post a slick video of a Times Square performance of the Resistance Revival Chorus and blast it to their 861,000 Facebook followers, making the video accessible and shareable in an instant.
Spreading the gospel of activism involves more than just promoting performances. Reflecting our times, the protest choirs of today are often open-source, making their resources readily available for those who want them. The Resistance Revival Chorus created a “tool kit”—a web site with downloadable directions—for those seeking to develop their own choruses across the country. The tool kit includes something of a mission statement, frequently asked questions, a quick primer on the history of music as a form of protest and show of resilience, tips for creating a “resistance revival,” and sample songs.
“The history of protest music, as it developed in the civil rights movement, was one where you want to empower leaders, wherever they are. And when those leaders are empowered, wherever they are, they have the opportunity to develop and strengthen [the] movement,” says Abena Koomson Davis, the musical director of the Resistance Revival Chorus. “In some city, in some country somewhere else, [people do] not need to look like and be like us, because they're going to have different needs. They're going to have different people. They're going to have different expressions ... They're going to have all of those things that speak to them where they are.”
The Justice Choir—which originated in Minneapolis through the Westminster Presbyterian Church and now operates local chapters in cities like San Diego, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Washington, DC—launched the first volume of its Justice Choir Songbook. This digital, downloadable resource was made after the leaders of the choir created a national “Call for Songs,” a crowd-sourcing request for music to sing at protests. Although the Songbook contains standards like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “black national anthem,” it mostly comprises newer songs written in this decade. The purpose, as Justice Choir Songbook co-editor Ahmed Anzaldua said to us, is to make the songs adjustable and accessible.
“It was just very important to get music out there and put it into the hands of people,” Anzaldua says. “So as much attention as we saw, a lot of the work that we did was about making sure that these songs were easy to learn, easy to teach, easy to pick up, easy to memorize, where you could learn them by reading off a page or listening to someone else sing. We try to make them flexible so that you could take a song and change it a little bit so that it could fit a different situation.”
Tim Hart-Anderson, the pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, agrees. In a statement written for the Songbook, Hart-Anderson writes, “The longing for a just and peaceful world is not limited to any one religious tradition or practice. People of faith and goodwill everywhere want to build a new future. Westminster invites you to join the movement for justice wherever you live.”
Songs in the Songbook are indexed in categories like “solos” and “call & response” and “chants, mantras & street songs.” The Justice Choir aims to create additional volumes of their songbook.
It’s clear then that the protest choir of today is not about being just one agent of change. It’s about giving other people the tools to take activism into their own hands.
Claire Minnis hopes to start a local chapter of Justice Choir in Chicago. After participating in and helping direct adult choirs in St. Louis, Minnis moved to Michigan and launched her own social-justice choir in Grand Rapids in 2017. “After exploring the community, setting some meetings with some local choir directors, we found a niche there that was unfilled, and that was a mixed-voice, gender-inclusive social-justice choir that ... anyone can come be a part of it,” Minnis says.
Minnis’s choir began using some of Justice Choir’s resources, including its songbook, for its first concerts. After learning more about the Justice Choir, the group officially applied to become Justice Choir Grand Rapids. Recently, Minnis moved to Chicago with her husband, and although she says the city “takes a little bit more of assimilation time than a place like Grand Rapids,” she aims to launch the Chicago branch later this year.
Each choir or chorus addresses the needs of the place in which it originates. So while the Resistance Revival Chorus originated in women’s rights activist circles in New York City, Justice Choir Chicago will attune its goals to issues of racial justice, gentrification, and economic disparity.
“We're focused on amplifying local voices that are already engaged and already activated. So what we want to do is find movements that exist, find needs that are relevant in our community, and find the people who are working to address those issues to break down the systems of oppression and build opportunities for justice,” Minnis said. “And what we want to do as a Chicago chapter is partner with those organizations to help them amplify their voices. Use something that's engaging and approachable, like music, and build audiences and then connect them with the activated, engaged community organizers that are building justice.”
Back in New York City, a group of around 15 from the Resistance Revival Chorus arrived at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan on that May day to sing in unison, creating something of a wall of sound at the reproductive rights protest. Koomson Davis wasn’t able to make it, but other members were familiar with the responsibilities of a musical director and led in her stead. Group members may not learn about the logistics of the event until they arrive, but their months of rehearsal and organization prepare them for a moment such as this.
“We really do have to have a ‘be ready’ attitude,” says Koomson Davis. “It's not like you can predict when some tragedy is going to happen. It's not like you can predict when groups of people are going to be needed. But you have to be ready and available for those moments.”
The Resistance Revival Chorus wasn’t the only activist group at the protest that day. Representatives from the Middle Collegiate Church and Planned Parenthood, among others, were also on the scene. But there was something about singing one’s pain and frustration and fury and, yes, even hope—instead of just talking about it—that resonated with the crowd. Think of it as a melodic shout, a nonviolent show of force. A song cuts through the static noise of a protest. It hits the average passerby like a sudden gust of wind. Whatever one was doing before is no match for the unexpected and concise harmonies of singers belting a tune in the middle of the bustle of the city. They’ve got something to say, and they want to make sure you can hear it. And people across the country (and even around the globe) are finally listening.