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The Church I Never Had: How The Resistance Revival Chorus Combines Music, Community and Activism

Solonje Burnett knew she wanted to join the Resistance Revival Chorus the moment she first heard about it. Word had trickled down to her through the chorus’s co-founder Ginny Suss, whom Burnett knew through friends, and it seemed like a perfect fit.

Solonje Burnett

Solonje Burnett (photo by Didem Cıvgınoglu)

Burnett was a classically-trained vocalist, but in her work as a culture consultant and co-founder of Humble Bloom, she had chosen to focus her career on promoting and building up socially conscious companies. For Burnett, music “is and will always be a part of my life, but I wanted to do something that inspires, connects people [and] affects change in unjust systems.”

“Music can do that,” Burnett acknowledged, but it’s not always so direct. That is, unless you’re talking about the Resistance Revival Chorus. 

Founded in 2017 after the first Women’s March on Washington, the Resistance Revival Chorus, or RRC, is a collective of artist-activists who identify as women and use the centuries-old tradition of protest songs to try to bring about social change. 

Luckily, Ginny Suss thought Burnett was a perfect candidate for the chorus, and soon invited her to join. “To be invited was just incredible,” said Burnett. “The women who founded it – Ginny Suss, Sarah Sophie Flicker, Paola Mendoza –and the women who are in it – I just admire them so much.” These women, along with the other cofounders Jenna Lauter, Shruti Ganguly, Alyssa Klein and Nelini Stamp, are musicians, writers, filmmakers and other creatives who share the belief that art can help lead the fight for social change.  

To guide their work, the RRC incorporates the unity principles of the Women’s March into their mission of using joyful, public song to shine a light on injustice. These principles include things like the assertion of bodily autonomy for women, an end to physical violence and the interconnectedness of the fights for gender, racial and economic equality. Burnett calls their work “creative activism.” 

“We use our songs, our skills as creatives and performers to bring attention to important social issues,” she said. “The core of what we’re doing is humanity- and protest-based, which is rooted in the culture of resistance.” 

“If the music is strong, it will bring people together and help to bolster the movement.”

Part of that culture is an emphasis on joy. “When we think about what’s happened in resistance movements throughout history,” Burnett said, “music has always played a role. This goes all the way back to slavery [in the American South]. Slaves would sing chants, call-and-response songs – songs that originated in Africa – to uplift themselves during a horrible experience.” 

The RRC also make use of call-and-response in chants and other easily repeatable songs as a mechanism to encourage bystanders to join with them at events. “We always encourage people to sing along to build a louder voice, a bigger sound,” Burnett said. “If the music is strong, it will bring people together and help to bolster the movement.” Other songs are more complex, but directly address the values the chorus upholds. Burnett mentioned “Ella’s Song” as an RRC favorite: Written by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and popularized by the heritage group Sweet Honey in the Rock, the song continually returns to a refrain that proclaims, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” 

Women’s issues are, of course, one of the things that the RRC focuses on, but their mission extends to address injustice in all its forms. This past winter, when New York City’s Metropolitan Detention Center, or MDC, lost power in the middle of a polar vortex, forcing incarcerated individuals to endure frigid temperatures for days on end, the RRC joined the throngs of protesters outside the prison and raised their voices in song. The public outcry paid off: Heat and power were eventually restored and multiple lawsuits were filed against MDC.

With inclusion and racial diversity ranking among RRC’s top priorities, the chorus also provides members the opportunity to be more involved in classical choral music, which might otherwise feel unwelcoming. “Plenty of people of color are interested in or involved in the classical arts, but get pushed into other genres,” said Burnett. “The music industry, like all others, is riddled with American institutional racism. People put musicians in categories based on the color of their skin.” 

Burnett gave the recent example of Lil Nas X, an artist of color, and his massive hit, “Old Town Road.” The song blends hip-hop and country western music and made its debut on three Billboard charts at once: the Hot 100, Hot R&B Hip Hop Songs and Hot Country Songs. However, Billboard later removed the song from its country chart, prompting a public backlash.

Resistance Revival Chorus performs

Resistance Revival Chorus

Classical music spaces have only recently begun to engage with their lack of racial diversity, and Burnett underscored the importance of institutions hiring “more instructors and professors of color. Representation matters: If we don’t see ourselves, we don’t show up.” Burnett studied piano as a girl and remembered how her mother “took me from the suburbs to the black neighborhood, so I could learn from a black woman.”

Years later, the Resistance Revival Chorus provides Burnett that same sense of community – as it can for so many others. The RRC’s founders intended the project to be recreated all over the country, going so far as to create a toolkit for those interested in creating their own chorus. The toolkit addresses how to round up like-minded folks, reviews rehearsal recommendations and encourages branches to register with the official RRC. 

Burnett is hopeful that the effort will motivate more people to combine their love of music with activism. “There’s this quote from Nina Simone that has always resonated with me,” said Burnett. “‘Artists must reflect on the times.’ It’s your duty to reflect on the times. [Music] can be recreational, but it can affect change, it can affect thought.”

Where should these citizen-musicians take their music? Wherever they can: The RRC performs in a wide variety of spaces – from the sidewalks outside detention centers to the stage at the Grammy Awards: In January, members of the RRC joined  Kesha at the 2018 Grammys, performing “Praying” in a nod to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. 

For Burnett, that kind of exposure “means people are paying attention to the movement, that they’re on board.” That, more than prestige, is what matters when it comes to a group that Burnett describes as “the church I never had. To me, church is a sort of affinity group where you find your home. I’ve found that in the RRC.”

Lilly Vanek

Lilly Vanek is a writer, editor and musician based in New York City who usually hides behind the proverbial curtains as 21CM’s copyeditor. …more 

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