The Power of Fierce Singing
“Whether we are singing alone as an outlet for our personal anger or raising our voices together in action, fierce singing may help us bring much needed change. Yes, it’s the end of the world as we knew it. And it’s about time.”
Energetic vibrations thump through my car speakers into my body. “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” I wail along with Michael Stipe. “And I feel fine.” But our current situation points out just how unfine the world is as we know it. Many of us are not fine. We are angry, confused, and wondering what actions are needed from us.
Since childhood, I have addressed anger, confusion, and feeling of powerlessness through fierce singing (sometimes accompanied by ugly crying). Back then, I lacked the funds to pick my own tunes and thus grew up singing along to my parent’s peculiar vinyl collection: Godspell, Nina Simone, Jethro Tull, Stevie Wonder, and John Denver.
In this time of world unrest and rising activist response, I find myself returning to those songs lodged deep within my DNA, now liberated from vinyl into my Jeep’s sound system. Loudest is Carl Anderson from Jesus Christ Superstar as he asks, “Who are you? What have you sacrificed?” These words are sung by Judas, perhaps my favorite person in the Christian Testament. The musical’s nontraditional (and controversial) gospel interpretation suggests Judas was not a traitor, but rather Jesus’ partner in a plan to expose the treachery within the Roman occupation of Israel (which feels quite in line with academics who acknowledge that Jesus was not fighting in opposition to his Jewish heritage, but rather the Roman government that was robbing everyone―Jews and non-Jews alike―from dignity and resources, oppressing them in an unfair system). And so, Judas, having laid out all ideas for promoting social justice, is now furious as they fall apart. His lament is fierce. Jesus, why did you let this get out of hand? What am I supposed to do now?
I've been feeling that way a lot lately. How does our world remain so out of balance? In book after book, podcast after podcast, song after song, I seek more answers to this question. And under all the content, I hear the universe asking me: Who are you? What have you sacrificed? What is yours to do?
Using our voices
A quick survey of my friends on social media revealed I’m not the only one involved in bold melodic outbursts. Many are wailing to songs spanning from Motorhead to Tosca, Violent Femmes to India Arie, and Joan Baez to Bad Brains, suggesting our vocal outlets are as varied as our emotions.
Political scientist Christophe Traïni explains in the book Bodies in Protest: Hunger Strikes and Angry Music: “What appears to be a subversive protest in the eyes of some will be considered by others as the most conformist propaganda. Similarly, what constitutes a lifesaving outlet for some may be used by others for primarily commercial, aesthetic, or entertainment purposes.”
Indeed, through the ages, music has fulfilled countless purposes. David King Dunaway and Molly Beer propose in their book Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals: “Music’s powers have been used by armies to motivate soldiers; by lovers to sway a beloved; by candidates and ministers to inspire their followers; and by people who have no other means to voice resistance.” Traversing seven decades, the authors explore how generations have risen up through lyrics and beats to question themselves and influence others.
In their interview with Diné (Navajo Nation) punk performer Clayson Benally, he suggests why music can be more effective than mere words. “Music is an intangible substance: It’s not just sounds waves, but emotions and the way you can affect people. … People might not listen to you if you’re just talking, if you’re just trying to communicate over a table like a politician. But if you put some beats and actually make it something that people can just absorb into their core and maybe understand on a whole other level—that’s the powerful thing about using music …”
With recent self-isolation and social distancing, music-making flooded our social feeds and airwaves. Pandemic playlists proliferated. Contextual songs for the times appeared, including Alicia Keys’ “Good Job,” Luke Combs’ “Six Feet Apart,” and Bono’s “Let Your Love Be Known.”
Then, in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and increased awareness of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities, new songs appeared. The Ongoing History of Protest Music website chronicles 80 years of socially conscious songs, including such recent ones as 16-year-old Chloë Nixon’s hauntingly beautiful “I Can’t Breathe.”
Whether we are singing alone as an outlet for our personal anger or raising our voices together in action, fierce singing may help us bring much needed change. Yes, it’s the end of the world as we knew it. And it’s about time.
Tracks to try
- Dismantling Racism: View Chloë Nixon’s acoustic and soulful “I Can’t Breathe” on YouTube.
- Resisting Divisiveness: Grammy Award-winner Mandisa’s “Bleed the Same” explores the question of why we are divided against each other, urging us that if we’re going to shout, love should be our cry.
- The Strength of We: Jeneda and Clayson Benally form the duo Sihasin (the Diné word for “to think with hope and assurance”). Their powerful anthem “Strong Together” emphasizes the spirit of acting together.
- Envisioning Hope: American Jewish reggae singer and rapper, Matisyahu, anticipates the day when we will no longer fight each other over our differences in “One Day.”
Read more on music as medicine.