At the Heart of Song is Activism and Resistance

When I think about activism, it follows a familiar script: writing letters and signing petitions, donating to causes and candidates, knocking on neighborhood doors on a cool fall day. But if you had added singing to that list, I might’ve stepped back – not because it’s implausible, but because I’d never considered music in that way. “One of the things about singing is that it’s so universal,” Sam, a member of SongRise, told me a few weeks ago, reflecting on the idea of singing as resistance. “It’s a powerful way of expressing raw emotion.” Her words sparked collective nods from her fellow SongRise members who were fanned across the balcony floor of the Church of the Pilgrims. “Song has potential to bring healing and connection,” said Katherine. It’s about education, Carmiya added, a way of allowing people to learn about issues they didn’t already know.

So, yes: song is a mighty form of activism and resistance. But let’s rewind.  

SongRise is a social justice acapella group based in DC that was founded seven years ago by two friends at American University. As SongRise member Bianca tells it, what started out as a spontaneous decision to perform at a university open mic night turned into a full-fledged acapella group, with a special bent: elevating social justice causes. “Their overall purpose was to inspire action,” Bianca explained. Through the art of singing, they wanted to “inspire others to join movements and be inspired to fight the good fight.”

Behind the Voices: Clear Intentions, Open Minds

Behind this goal is a clear-cut intentionality that I had not first associated with the act of singing as resistance. “We try to match each individual set list to the goals of the organizations or the events we are singing for,” Noel, the associate music director, told me. “We want to make sure we are including a lot of different histories and stories in our music. It’s a very intentional process.” Every year, SongRise gets together as a group and evaluates its current repertoire, suggesting new songs that are compelling or especially topical and retiring songs that reflect concerns that have fallen away from national priority. The final result is a musical repertoire that not only represents collective and individual buy-in, but, crucially, also matches the tone and feel of what is going on outside of their practice room door.

“As we’ve grown and opened our doors to new people we don’t have personal connections to, that changed the dynamic of the group and how we function,” said Bekki, the chair of SongRise. I could resonate with this. Like with all circles of friends, there are rules and norms and common beliefs that tie those people together. It would be enormously easy to simply continue championing the causes the original friends of SongRise held. But they’ve opted for something more challenging: opening their hands, hearts, and voices to causes they may not know about, from women they did not (yet) have relationships with. “This choir has taught me I have room to grow on the left, and that’s been very challenging in a positive, though icky, kind of way,” Carmiya said. “But this is a great group of people to have that with.”

Adejoké heartily agreed. “People have different passions, and being in a group of women that is so diverse, you learn more about issues that maybe you knew only a little bit about…It helps you stretch yourself and helps you to be more open and curious.”

This is a point held deeply by the women of SongRise. Not only must there be consensus in the practical aspects of their rehearsal and performance process – selecting and retiring songs, holding auditions – but they also must work toward intentional consensus with each other, learning how to resist together, on different issues, to better reflect what they want to build for their worlds. And that’s what I think is at the heart of song as activism and resistance.

Consensus-Building for World-Changing

“Every one of us has a different definition of what social justice is and every one of us carries things that are deep in our hearts,” said Bekki. “Even in this space, there are things I have learned that I never would have seen or been awoken to, if I hadn’t been with this group of women. Everything from the way we view safe space to the way we approach conversations – it’s different from culture to culture and being in this diverse space makes me aware of the spaces where I live in privilege.”

In this political world, the very action of having a different point of view can be threatening to others. And I think, not just for SongRise, but for progressive groups everywhere trying to make a difference, balancing a willingness to learn and an eagerness to create change can be challenging. For SongRise, it’s a challenge that the members welcome. Because, for them, song as resistance is not only about opening your worldview. It’s also about opening your voice, literally and figuratively, and melding it into a collective harmony (or, “a place of resonated dissonance,” as Bekki described) where you emote the experiences you feel with others in this wondrous synchronization.

And, powerfully, I got the sense they acknowledged that they didn’t need to have common experiences to have a common understanding. It’s about harmony – blending voices and experiences that wouldn’t naturally fit together, and then coming away with something beautiful.

Supporting the Movement


“An artist’s duty is to reflect the times,” Adejoké said, quoting Nina Simone.

If you’re interested in learning more about SongRise, please visit their website, where you can learn about the types of music they perform, how to book performances (SongRise does not charge a set fee but gratefully accepts honoraria or in kind donations to help defray operational costs), and how to audition. SongRise is open to all who identify as women.

SongRise has a couple of events coming up in the next few weeks. Check out the information below to learn more!

Adejoké & SongRise: The Rising of the Women Means the Rising of Us All
Atlas Intersections Festival 2018
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE
February 25, 2018 at 3 p.m.
(Use discount code ADEJOKEFAN5 for $5 off your ticket!)

The Resisterhood International Women’s Day Arts Festival
Luther Place, 1226 Vermont Avenue NW
March 10, 2018 at 7 p.m.