Protest Pro Tip: Memorize Songs

Protest pro tip: Memorize some songs

While you’re making your signs and t-shirts in preparation for this week’s rallies, consider setting aside the time to learn some songs that you could comfortably sing start to finish without accompaniment or a lyrics sheet. You know how at the gym you need your tunes? At a protest march, or standing around in the rain with a sign, same thing, but you’re not going to have your earbuds in because you’re trying to engage with rather than shut out your surroundings.

In the context of nonviolent resistance, songs do three things:

1) allow everyone to speak/sing in one voice
2) act as a painkiller by transporting you to a different part of your brain
3) stop you getting bored with how much time this is taking

Note how slaves sang spirituals to get through anguishing days in the field (and pass along resistance strategy in the guise of “just enjoy the tune”), how MLK’s march on Washington had gospel and folk singers in it (I can’t think of the civil rights movement without either “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” or “We Shall Overcome” getting stuck in my head), and how when President Obama ran out of words to talk about the horror of the Charleston church shootings, he still had “Amazing Grace.”

If you are considering writing a song of your own, consider using a hymn-like format so other people can quickly learn to sing along with you. The reason hymns sound “boring” is because they’re normally within a single octave (so even bad singers can hit all the notes) and have a predictable chord structure (so that people who either can’t hit those notes or want to sound fancy can improvise harmonies). They have lots of verses so they can fill up a lot of time, but return regularly to a refrain so that people who don’t know all the verses can still jump in for the repetitive half.


Here are some relevant quotes about the importance of music as an organizing tool from participants in the Freedom Movement:

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