Whose music? Our music!

Reflection written by Brian Rawson, LCN member

Luis Valdez of Teatro Campesino with guitar at UFW events. Civil rights anthems synonymous with defeating Jim Crow segregation. Songs of revolution in Tahrir Square. We’ve seen how music plays a part in movements. But how do we incorporate it into our day to day organizing practice? When we’re neck deep in brainy strategy sessions and packed agendas doesn’t music seem like a dispensable extra?

My introduction to organizing came on a delegation to El Salvador, an inspiring time for the popular movement where guitars and songs traveled among people hand in hand with courageous actions, planning and organizing. I was taught songs in the back of pickup trucks, in university basement hideouts, in el campo y el centro. Songs captured dreams and ignited passions like no other medium could.

Back in the US, applying my hand as a young organizer I wanted to incorporate music but found it often seemed out of place or even hokey during organizing planning sessions where all brows were furrowed, flip charts and post-its littered walls and floor, and breakout sessions raced the clock. I recall one global peace summit – the historic Hague Appeal for Peace – where a decorated physician activist bemoaned that work sessions were being disrupted by outbreaks of drumming!
Nonetheless, I have now come to appreciate how music and celebration in general are integral to organizing even in the toughest times.

Why did you take away our music?

For 10 years I organized an annual advocacy training and lobby day for Oxfam America to improve US policies on aid, trade, and climate. Each year somehow we squeezed in a moment for music. The first year I clumsily pushed a guitar through the high security metal detectors leading to the House of Representatives office building just so we could sing at the close of our lobby day. But most years a colleague and i just pulled out the guitar during the casual dinner celebration and regaled participants with a couple of folk tunes. Fun, but silly. One year we ditched the dinner celebration for a cocktail event where our members could rub elbows with high level “influencers” – leaders from business and politics. The guitars stayed in the hotel room. To my surprise, days later I heard an outcry from participants that we never had our singalong. Even weeks later they told me that they just didn’t feel as connected and motivated as in prior years’ trainings.

This showed me the power of music. A touch of music, even just one or two songs, was like a signal that we were all more than just colleagues or collaborators – we were friends, a community. Though pulling out the guitar often felt awkward and our voices cracked on the high notes, even so music served as a catalyst for unity.

We brought back the music the following year, and even expanded on it so that participants could take turns leading songs and even teach each other dance moves.

Here are my tips for incorporating music into your organizing work:

  1. Just do it. You can put a guitar in the room, but no one will play it unless someone breaks the
    ice. Signal early that you are an art-friendly event by including a verse of poetry in your welcome speech or singing a lyric. Later when it’s time to really rock out decide who will break the ice with a song or two.
  2. Let the music come from within. Don’t rely on outside bands to bring the music to a party. Chances are your group has talented musicians, poets, dancers and others already in it. These days smart phones enable instant singalongs and dance offs as chords, lyrics, dance tracks, etc are in our pockets.
  3. No divas! Don’t hog the limelight. Play a couple tunes and hand it off to the next person
  4. Create space for whole humans. Music with a message is great, as are movement anthems. But also let people share whatever moves them even if a pop tune or something silly
  5. Don’t force anyone to listen or sing. At events or parties create enough space where those who want to sing along can do so, and those who don’t can chill and chat.
  6. Know when to wrap up. When eyes are glazing over and smiles look forced you know it’s gone too long. Cut to the final number – hopefully a rousing singalong with a relevant message.


Reflection written by Brian Rawson, LCN member

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Our members are social justice advocates that are organizing, researching or training communities to build leadership to create change. Each member has a rich experience in their context with lessons learned. We invite our members to reflect, write, and share their learning with our community. The process of writing and reflecting allows our members to practice mindfulness, assess their experience and to document what they had learned. The process of sharing their reflections allows their community to learn from one another and cross pollinate our learning.If you are interested in contributing your reflection, please let us know by emailing our Community of Practice Manager at rawan.zeine@leadingchangenetwork.org.
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