The Power of Music to Change the World


Recent news stories have uncovered the awful, inhumane conditions that hundreds of children are living under at border detention centers. These news reports have spread on social media, along with some articles about ways we can help children and families at the border. I can’t read and watch horrible injustices without finding some ways, even if small, to make a difference. Among the ways I’ve found are these:

  1. Contact our elected officials.
  2. Donate to The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), Women’s Refugee Commission, and/or other organizations working to protect the children.
  3. Volunteer translation, legal, and other services.
  4. Join a rally.
  5. Vote.
  6. Pray.

Another way we can help that I haven’t read or heard mentioned is:

  1. Sing

As I’ve been reading Courtney Pace’s inspiring book, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, I’ve been convinced anew of the power of music to change the world. Pace writes about the prominent place of freedom songs in all the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s mass meetings to organize voter registration and nonviolent direct action for racial justice in the South in the 1960s. Hall joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962 and quickly became one of the top leaders in Albany, Georgia.

Pace vividly recounts the dangers, discomforts, and challenges that Hall and other SNCC workers experienced, along with those they persuaded to exercise their right to vote. They risked loss of property, loss of job, arrest, and even loss of life. “Many prospective black voters lost their jobs or suffered destruction of their personal property and homes by merely attempting to register to vote, so asking a black person to register to vote was tantamount to asking them to risk everything,” Pace writes. “SNCC workers, too, took their lives in their hands to live interracially and promote civil rights.” Through it all, singing gave them courage and power. Pace quotes Hall on the power of singing freedom songs to fashion “fear into faith, cringing into courage, suffering into survival, despair into defiance, and pain into protest.”

Pace states that “through days of voter registration, canvassing on foot, waiting in line at the county courthouse, being crammed into filthy jail cells without water or food, helping sharecroppers meet daily quotas so they could attend mass meetings, and the ever-present fear that at any moment death could come,” Hall and others at the meetings drew courage from singing freedom songs. Hall explained: “When fear was so real and so powerful we could taste it, we would sing those songs. We were bound together. There was a connection. That was where the community was.” When jailers demanded they stop singing, civil rights workers knew their message was getting across. “We knew we were being heard, and we would just sing louder and longer.”

“Mass meetings began with an hour or more of congregational freedom singing,” Pace writes. She quotes Hall on the reason:

Music was a lifeline, a source, a well from which we could draw, a source of courage and strength in the face of eminent danger. With these forces of death with their guns loaded and sometimes drawn, surrounding you and taking down your name or license plate number, to be able then to sing and the relationship between the songs of the movement and the songs of the church is of one fabric, that’s a continuous thread. . . . What do you do when you are so surrounded by this powerful force of death? You sing life.

Recently I watched a PBS documentary on Robert Shaw (1916-1999), an American conductor best known for his work with his namesake Chorale. I found these comments he made several decades ago still relevant:

“In these days of political, personal and economic disintegration, music is not a luxury, it’s a necessity; not simply because it is therapeutic, nor because it is the universal language, but because it is the persistent focus of our intelligence, aspiration and goodwill. The arts are not simply skills: their concern is the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual maturity of human life. They bind people together at their own eventual best, their own eventual goodness, so they belong on the vastest possible human platform that we can conceive. And in a time when religious and political institutions are so busy engraving images of marketable gods that they lose their vision of human dignity, the arts have become the custodians of those values which most worthily define humanity, which most sensitively define Divinity.”

Here are other great quotes from famous musicians on the power of music:

“The only thing better than singing is more singing.” – Ella Fitzgerald

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein

“Music makes us want to live. You don’t know how many times people have told me that they’d been down and depressed. But then a special song caught their ear and that helped give them renewed strength. That’s the power music has.” – Mary J. Blige

“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.” – Jimi Hendrix

“Music can change the world because it can change people.” – Bono

Just as in the civil rights movement, music can empower our social justice work today for refugees and immigrants and for all those oppressed. Music empowers action for social change. Music stirs our spirits and embeds words in our memories. Words shape our values that drive our actions. Singing our beliefs in justice, peace, and equality will move us to transform our world. Because of my strong belief in the power of music, I keep writing songs.

Here are lyrics I recently wrote, focused on justice for immigrants and others, to the tune of “Wade in the Water”:

Join with the Spirit


Join with the Spirit, join with the Spirit, rising,
join with the Spirit;
She will empower our rising.

See those women’s rights denied,
She will empower our rising;
by leaders who have often lied;
She will empower our rising.   Refrain

See the immigrants abused,
She will empower our rising;
their basic human rights refused;
She will empower our rising.   Refrain

Work for racial justice now;
She will empower our rising;
all those oppressed will show us how;
She will empower our rising. Refrain

We will hold each other fast;
She will empower our rising;
some day we will be free at last;
She will empower our rising.   Refrain

Words © 2017 Jann Aldredge-Clanton (from Inclusive Songs for Resistance & Social Action)

In this song the reference to the “Spirit” as “She” comes from the biblical female divine name Ruah (Hebrew word for “Spirit”). We find Her in the first chapter of the Bible, giving birth to the universe: “The Spirit (Ruah) of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2) to bring forth light and life. This female Creative Spirit, prominent at the beginning of biblical revelation, has been buried in patriarchal culture and tradition.

Through including female divine names and images in the songs we sing, we can help dismantle patriarchy at the root of gender, racial, and other intersecting injustices. In her advocacy for inclusion of female divine images in the language of liturgy to support justice and healing, Judith Liro, priest of St. Hildegard’s Community in Austin, Texas, uses this powerful metaphor: “I like the useful metaphor of several factories that are built on a river and pollute the water of a village downstream. A hospital is built to treat the illnesses that result, but there is still a need to track down the source of the pollution and to clean up the water itself. Many organizations, including the church, do the important work of the hospital. Yet I have also come to realize that the church is one of the factories that contribute to the problem. Our liturgical language with its current heavily masculine content supports a patriarchal hierarchical ordering. Most are simply unaware of the power of language. The status quo, that includes the exploitation of the earth, poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and militarism, is held in place by a deep symbolic imbalance, and we are unwitting participants in it.”

Here are 2 videos with inclusive songs to empower our actions for justice, liberation, and peace.

“We Sound a Call to Freedom” includes the biblical female divine name Sophia (Greek word for “Wisdom” in the New Testament). Recording artist Shannon Kincaid sings this song to the tune of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” with pictures from various artists.

Let Justice Like Waters Roll Down” includes the biblical link between Sophia (“Wisdom”) and Christ. New Testament writers link Christ to Wisdom, a feminine symbol of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Wisdom (Hokmah in Hebrew) symbolizes creative, redemptive, and healing power. In their efforts to describe this same power in Christ, the apostle Paul and other New Testament writers draw from the picture of Wisdom. The apostle Paul refers to Christ as the “power of God and the Wisdom (Sophia) of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), and states that Christ “became for us Wisdom (Sophia) from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). The book of Proverbs describes Wisdom as the “way,” the “life,” and the “path” (4:11,22,26). The Gospel of John refers to Christ as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Larry E. Schultz conducts the Chancel Choir and congregation of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, Raleigh, North Carolina, in singing this song to a familiar hymn tune, with pictures from various artists.

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