Art and music are vital to protests

Since the history-making women’s marches that took place all over the globe last year, activists of all issues, ages and identities have been anticipating the first anniversary of the event. And as predicted, on Jan. 20 people all over the country left their homes with iconic pink knitted hats, signs raised high and excitement for the chance to surround themselves with like-minded people and “make a difference.”

Here in Raleigh, we rallied and the event drew thousands.

The chance to participate was exciting. I was ready to be picked up and carried away by the enthusiasm of thousands of people coming together for a movement that inspires justice, progress and inclusion – like I’ve seen in the photos and videos of the 1960s and 70s;.

So I went. And, although signs were up, people came and microphones were on, the crowd lacked an “oomph” I was craving. Some speakers went by and there were hollers here and there, but where was the vigor?

And then, Randa McNamara, 70, walked on stage, with her cane in hand and guitar behind her. She was small, but her eyes shone behind bold glasses and her pink hat made her stand taller.

Her voice was bigger than she was as she gave us instructions. Then she went right into strumming and letting her voice soar. She sang chant songs with a bluesy feel that we repeated after her.

“When I hear the word justice,” and we repeated it back. “Makes me think about women,” and we repeated again. This follow-the-leader continued and the crowd was cold and shy to start. But her energy was contagious, so when she transitioned into the classic “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the crowd embraced it with inhibitions aside and hands together. And that was precisely the Vietnam-era singer’s plan when she came out.

“Music, it’s a healing force,” said McNamara. “It just opens up the heart, so that’s how the real message gets in, is through the heart ... When you sing something about justice or about, really, something close to your heart, it can go into someone else’s heart and really open them up. It’s like love.”

This one-woman show got its start when tensions were high between many Americans and their government. During this time, many musicians used their music as a form of activism. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and so on, their songs demonstrated distaste for the war through thoughtful lyrics; moreover, those radical musicians were using music as a unifying force in rallies and marches.

On Aug. 28, 1963 at the March on Washington music played a big role. Just moments before MLK Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Mahalia Jackson gave the crowd of 250,000 her soul with “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.”

“You know my soul looks back in wonder, how I got over,” Jackson sang, prompting the protesters to reflect on all they had overcome and feel powerful as they moved forward in the fight against racism, a theme also addressed at the Women’s Rally in Raleigh. Her music opened the hearts of the crowd standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial that day and prepared them emotionally to receive the powerful words coming to them next from King. I suppose that it was this combination of emotion from Jackson and catalyst from King gave momentum to the movement that eventually triumphed with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But, as quickly as McNamara got on stage and opened our hearts for the multifaceted agenda of the women’s rally she got off it and there weren’t more performers during the rally. The other artists were scheduled to play before or after, as if music was only there to entertain protesters when the heavy lifting was done. There was the rally and there was the music – both on the same side of the movement, but working separately instead of banding together.

I urge the women’s rallies to look back on the protests of the past for inspiration about how to incorporate music and other art as tools in the movement instead of entertainment.

Rallies, they’re events where we can find others who share our angst and feel less alone in the turbulence. Music, it moves strangers to share in the artist’s emotion and experience, preparing us to receive a message. And speeches, they give us the checklist and motivate us to complete it.

So, let ua all work together.

Kelsey Ward is a journalism student N.C. State University.

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