Singers from multiple groups perform at an anti-war rally in Oakland, April 15, 2018. All photos (except where noted) by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The music of the resistance

Singing joyfully in the face of oppression

Sunday, April 15, I headed to Oakland for a rally to “End the Wars at Home and Abroad”. This action was not organized in response to the recent bombing of Syria; it was planned months ago by a large group of anti-war and social justice organizations. Demonstrations were held in cities throughout the U.S. that weekend.

You can read the organizers’ list of demands, which includes domestic as well as international issues, on the Spring Action 2018 web site. (Note that Sophos Anti-Virus, suspiciously, blocked that site for me as “spam”, which it is not; I had to manually unblock it.)

I found out about this action from the Facebook page of Ajamu Baraka, 2016 Green Party vice-presidential candidate. His candidacy was a factor in why I decided to vote for Jill Stein in that election (a decision I do not regret, and which is not up for debate). Baraka is the national spokesperson for the Black Alliance for Peace and writes for the Black Agenda Report, among other publications. Worth reading for a radical take on U.S. and international politics.

While a critical examination of U.S. imperialism is important, I’m writing today primarily to talk about another aspect of the resistance: Music. As a child of professional musicians, I’ve been making music since I was old enough to sit at a piano and hold a 1/8 size violin. Now that I’m focused primarily on singing, I tend to gravitate toward any musical groups that are performing at protests, especially when they encourage onlookers to sing along.

So when I arrived early to the Lake Merritt Ampitheater for Sunday’s rally, I found myself sitting next to a couple of folks with guitars. I thought I recognized one of them, who turned out to be Bonnie Lockhart, from last year’s March for Science in San Francisco.

Occupella performs at March for Science San Francisco, April 22, 2017.

I pulled up the above photo on my phone to show her, and soon learned that the group I enjoyed watching and singing along with at the end of that march was the cleverly-named Occupella, born out of the Occupy movement. At the Oakland rally, they joined with several other local musical groups, including La Peña Community Chorus and Vukani Mawethu, in a spirited sing-along (pictured at the top of this post).

Trio Cambio performs at the anti-war rally in Oakland.

Later in the rally another musical group, Trio Cambio, also sang songs of liberation and resistance. I knew two of the members, Kristina and Windsong, from when we did volunteer food justice work together at the Free Farm and Free Farm Stand in San Francisco, so it was good to reconnect with them. They sang in English, Spanish, and Tagalog.

Members of the Musicians Action Group march through downtown Oakland while playing brass and percussion instruments.

After the rally at Lake Merritt, we marched to Oscar Grant Plaza (the unofficial, activist name for Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland). Along the way, I enjoyed listening and singing along to more songs, performed by the Musicians Action Group. I approached their bass drum player and told her how much I appreciated all of the live music at this rally. I explained that though I’ve grown weary of marching in protests that are of dubious effectiveness in the quest to overcome oppression, sing-alongs invigorate me, especially at progressive events like Sunday’s action.

More music was performed at the plaza, but I didn’t stay long enough to photograph or hear much of it; I was very tired as the initial rally ran more than an hour past the scheduled time. (Though I did stay long enough to hear featured speaker Alice Walker, who read a poem she wrote for the occasion.) There were also some fairly serious problems with the sound, which was disappointing, but not uncommon in volunteer-run events like this.

The Thrive Street Choir performs at an Idle No More SF Bay action, San Francisco, March 19, 2018.

Other local music groups I’ve encountered at recent activist events include the Thrive Street Choir and Choral Majority. I’d learned about both of these choirs when they hosted a song leading and vocal activism workshop with Melanie DeMore that I attended in February. I got on their mailing lists, and met up with Thrive at an action last month with the indigineous-led group Idle No More SF Bay, where we protested at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District over the planned importation of tar sands to the SF Bay Area.

Another great group is the Brass Liberation Orchestra, who I most recently enjoyed at last month’s march to remember and reclaim queer space in the Polk Gulch:

The Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco performs at Martuni’s, San Francisco, February 11, 2018. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.

My experience singing with the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco also has an activist bent. Last year I wrote about how I discovered my authentic self and began my gender transition while singing with LGCSF in 2013, and was grateful to do so in a supportive environment. Both directors I’ve sung for, Billy Sauerland and Michael Reilly, have been great about using gender-neutral terms to refer to the chorus sections (i.e. not referring to sopranos and altos as “ladies” or “women”), and updating song lyrics to use gender-neutral language as appropriate.

Our current director, Michael Reilly, is active in social justice causes. One of the first songs he taught us was “Love is Love is Love is Love”, from the Justice Choir, which is producing a free (Creative Commons-licensed) book of protest songs for download.

On May 4, I’ll be singing with LGCSF and two other choruses in a concert, Passages, featuring the Bay Area premiere of the wonderful piece “Alzheimer’s Stories” by Robert Cohen. I’m fortunate to have the baritone solo on this challenging work. Our concert will help raise funds for Openhouse, which provides services to LGBTQ seniors. Locals, please come support us!

My full set of photos from Sunday’s action is available on Flickr. Some of these photos are also on Wikimedia Commons, alongside photos from other contributors. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of my photos, thanks!

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