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From the Flobots: Why did we stop singing?

In the spring of 2014 one of our mentors passed away. His name was Vincent Gordon Harding.  He was Uncle Vincent. He was Dr. Harding.

He was many things to many people. Author. Historian. Theologian. Activist, Educator. He was a veteran of the Southern Freedom Movement (“it was about far more than civil rights” he would explain). He was a speechwriter to Dr. Martin Luther King’s  (most famously “A time to break the silence” in opposition to the Vietnam War).

And he was a songleader.

He opened most meetings by playing “Ella’s Song”, a Sweet Honey in the Rock’s tribute to the freedom movement’s still-too-often-unsung godmother, Ella Baker. He ended by teaching us his own updated take on the spiritual “Jacob’s Ladder”. Knowing we were in a band, he was always asking us “Where are the songs for today’s movements?”

After his death, we did not have to guess what he might say to us. We already knew. Our charge was clear. So, in the fall of 2014 we began we began gathering people together to experience and experiment with collective song as a tactic for street protest. Music as a tool for social movements is nothing new, but because of how out-of-practice most of our culture is, it felt new. And it felt good.

We called the project NO ENEMIES. The thinking was simple: for movements to win, they need to grow. To grow, they need to invite allies, not declare enemies. If a movement is serious, then every action, every march, rally, demonstration, and protest, is above all an invitation- not only a space for the like-minded  to gather, but chance for bystanders to be engaged, and even for opponents to transform.

Every political “action” should really be understood as an attempt to communicate to people on a deeper level, an appeal to hearts and minds, an exploration of underlying principles and values.

In other words, art.

It only made sense, then, to bring NO ENEMIES to the Denver Art Museum. For our Creative-In-Residence kickoff event on May 2nd we gathered in Schlessman hall with a crowd of about 200 people. We began by playing with sound and courage. Can we make a noise together? Can we sing a note together? Can we lead each other in song? Do we know the same songs? What emotions to these songs bring us? What issues and wounds could our songs address? 

Then it was time for the installation.

We divided into 5 groups, each with its own issue, setlist, destination, and songleaders. We agreed to meet in the Atrium at the end of our mission. Our shared challenge was to sustain the songs throughout our journey.

The spaces we journeyed to matched the ways in which the songs might be used.

One group traveled to the North Stairwell, where we spread out up and down the stairs. The echo was profound and we could not see each other’s faces. We sang songs that would be used at a march protesting the use of prison labor.

One group traveled to the interactive room outside the Miro exhibit, rows of stations  where members of the public were making their own works of art. They brought work songs into the space, imagining that such songs could be used during spring gardens across the city.

One group traveled to the Being Home exhibition. Standing amongst the multilingual placards and pillows, they sang songs being used by communities resisting deportation.

One group traveled to the bridge between the old and new buildings, and sang songs sung by those marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma.

The fifth group travelled to a tunnel in the basement, singing song that would be used a few weeks later to call on the RTD board to commit to a more equitable public transportation fare structure.

Then we all made our way to the atrium. Filling the ledges of all four floors, we raised our in unison, singing “Wade in the Water”.  With each successive group rejoining, the chorus grew louder and stronger, inevitably involving and inviting all bystanders into participation (How would anyone have known they were a bystanders at this point?)

Then we paused.

We ended the session with the song that Dr. Harding would always sing. The one to the tune of Jacob’s Ladder.

     We are building up a new world

     We are building up a new world

     We are building up a new world

     Builders must be strong

At the end of the song a cheer erupted and reverberated throughout the museum.  During the immediate lull that followed, I could feel that the people in the crowd were not finished. The energy of the experience was still bubbling within them, rich with possibility and searching for opportunities for expression.

In the audio recording of the event, someone can be heard to say “Why did we stop singing?”

Why indeed.