The Galvanizing Musicality of the Protest Chant

As people march against police brutality, music makes the movement more accessible

Hanif Abdurraqib
GEN
Published in
6 min readJun 10, 2020

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Illustration: Rose Wong

It’s hard to explain the extent to which humidity can wear on a body. In Columbus, where I live, spring doesn’t turn gently into summer. The season ends abruptly, with the heat of summer overwhelming the calm air of spring. With so many new people taking to the streets, embarking on miles-long marches, the organizers in my community have sent out intermittent reminders: Start drinking water early, and drink more than you need. Even if it is 85 degrees out, dress like it’s going up to 95. Take a snack, if you can swing it. Walking through the thick, weighty fog of humidity can make lifting the feet more difficult. Sweat appears, not in small doses, but in waves. As the miles accumulate, it can be easy to lose focus. Snacks and water help, but as an act of energy and propulsion, the protest chant is the great motivator.

The act of the march, or the protest, is also an act of community. An act that, often, is driven by sound. Sometimes, yes, there is someone at the front or the back of a march with a radio. And occasionally, the people in the streets might be blessed with a car driving by slowly with its windows down. During the first weekend of protests here, one car drove by blaring N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” while protesters stood downtown. And then another car, and then another. A long chain of cars, all playing the same ode to dissent.

Song and communal voices uplifting protest is, of course, not new. Most notably, in the States, the civil rights movement was anchored by song. Black gospel and folk were songs of resistance, sometimes transformed for the sake of the movement. The 1900 hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday” was the seed that would grow into the 1960s anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Music plays a similar role today, like when Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” brings a crowd of weary protesters roaring back to life.

During the first weekend of protests here, one car drove by blaring N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” while protesters stood downtown. And then another car, and then another.

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