It is a striking image: some three dozen black students standing at the fifty-yard line, fists held high in the Black Power salute. They are at Jack Kemp Stadium on the campus of Occidental College (Oxy) in Los Angeles; it is the last football game of the 2014–15 season, and they are giving a pre-game performance of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Amidst heckling from peers and other sports fans—a number of whom chastised the group by pointing to the American flag—these students honored a rich tradition within black movement collectives by using music as a method of self-affirmation and political dissent inside an institution that, as Robin Kelley documents, is “incapable of loving them—of loving anyone.”
The Oxy performance highlights an underutilized political strategy, one that models Kelley’s affecting triptych of “love, study, struggle.” Music is a method of political advance and radical self-care that forces us to listen intently, to find common ground, and to play, even if momentarily, in our imaginations. Far from auxiliary, culture is the work of movement building; not only does it assist in making the mass demonstrations and disruptions, marches, and public campaigns possible, but, after those eruptions are gone, it remains as a reminder of and resource for struggle. Student demonstrations of the last year suggest that recognizable political acts and demands linger at the center of what is considered effective pressure. But what might be gained from less spectacular, less institutionally familiar forms of protest? Who could we be if possessed of the new knowledges derived from collective performance?
If one listens closely enough, histories of black movements answer these questions and bring disorder to the narrow logics of protest. Indeed, music as a strategy of community solidarity and protection is heard throughout the twentieth-century United States. Composed at the turn of the century, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was a hallmark text for black movement collectives throughout the country. After twenty years of performance in black schools, it was adopted as the song of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and quickly became a standard feature of organization meetings and rallies alike. Over many decades of NAACP organizing, these rallies, aided by song, protested Jim Crow disfranchisement and segregation, lynching, and anti-labor policies and practices. These are the histories and interventions attached to every recital of the anthem. Performances of the song refract these violences and occlusions while also carrying with them the energies, agendas, hopes, and dreams of those who sing it again, at Oxy or elsewhere.
“Progressive art,” according to Angela Y. Davis, “can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives.” Indeed, culture is struggled for, making it a dynamic venue for layered and meaningful debate and introspection that responds to the world while making the collective or organization stronger. As Kelley argues, encounter with contradiction is not uncommon in this work; intragroup differences are useful in the study of protest, and culture enlivens these cleavages while also providing a way to negotiate them.
For musical performance to be effective, we must know the histories that produced these songs in order to contend with both their inconsistencies and their brilliance. To sing “We Shall Overcome,” as black students did at Yale University during their March of Resilience, is to take seriously the song’s birth in an organized labor struggle led by World War II–era black women factory workers. Demands that focus exclusively on students, however, expose a missed opportunity for proposing more challenging narratives and building larger coalitions that take aim at the transformation of structure rather than the pursuit of recognition.
The urgency and insight of this moment requires studied knowledge of multiple forms of political labor, including the creative ways in which protest can be performed. Sing. Dance. Compose. Listen. Music offers an opportunity to control the narrative and tone of protest, to stake powerful claims, and to create complicated, resilient thinkers and archives for the futures of struggle yet to come.