Melodies and Movements

Melodies and Movements

Change yourself to change the world…

Composer Byron Au Yong led a group of 18 local activists in this simple, repeated, four-note song. The sanctuary of Dixwell Avenue United Church of Christ was bright with afternoon light. One woman knitted as she sang; another nursed her baby. Some people were smiling, while others looked a little bit uncomfortable, unsure of what they’d signed up for.

Au Yong added a second part:

The system will not fix itself.
Be dangerous to the system.

Writer Aaron Jafferis, Au Yong’s collaborator in this project, sat in the circle of participants, singing along, even though he’d just claimed not to be a singer “at all.” That didn’t matter. The point of the workshop, part of an ongoing series dubbed Activist Songbook, was not to create a performance for an audience but rather to help activists find their voices, literally, and put them to work for social good.

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A native of New Haven, Jafferis told the gathering his motivation for co-creating Activist Songbook had to do with feeling “alive” at some social activism events he’d participated in since high school while, at other times, feeling distanced from them. In songs, he said, he sees the possibility to “energize our own selves, individually as people, and energize the movements that we’re a part of.”

Au Yong split the group in two, getting one side of the room singing the “change yourself” part and the other the “system” part, an exercise in “figuring out how the fragments can come together and build strength,” both musically and metaphorically. Once these voices had melded into something like two-part harmony, Au Yong added one more part, an opportunity to improvise some of the sounds the group had practiced earlier: stomping, clapping, vocalizing toward the rafters above or singing what he called a placeholder, the word “dangerous.” Put together, this song—written by the activist Grace Lee Boggs—and others like it are designed “to be taught outdoors to a group of people to be used immediately,” Au Yong explained to the group.

Activist Songbook is an ongoing series of workshops first launched in Philadelphia as part of the Asian Arts Initiative. The project involves interviewing activists nationwide—more than 50 to date—in order to collect their stories and songs and “find power and solidarity with them,” Au Yong says. He and Jafferis have collaborated before on theatrical pieces Stuck Elevator and (Be)longing, a.k.a. Trigger, both of which were performed at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas and elsewhere. Now, in addition to conducting interviews and workshops for Activist Songbook, the two have been creating small zines, which Jafferis describes as being “like scores to individual rally songs.” The end product will be an actual songbook of 53 songs—one for each week of the year and one for the first week of the next year. In New Haven, where the project is sponsored by Arts and Ideas, it will also include a performance at the 2020 festival.

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Jafferis says that in the course of interviewing activists, he and Au Yong have identified four different functions for the songs they rap, chant or sing. Some of them instruct—for example, telling the story of a successful campaign in order to share information and tactics with other groups. Some nurture, by counteracting the burnout common among those who dedicate their lives to activism. “Through singing about some of the beauty and joy we can bring both to our activism and to our lives in general, the songs become a tool for helping people stay in the work,” Jafferis says. The songs also challenge not only those institutions that require change but also sometimes the activist groups themselves, Jafferis says. And finally, they do the thing they’re perhaps best known for: rallying the people.

All of the songs in Activist Songbook will be originals. Some of them have already been written by Au Yong and Jafferis, based on what they’ve learned in their interviews. Others may be created in community by workshop participants.

Participant Paul Davies attended an October workshop with Au Yong and Jafferis and was back for more on this particular Sunday afternoon at Dixwell. He’d met several people the last time who were passionate about the same ideas—advocating for those with mental illness and other disabilities—and had come again with the hope of becoming more active in the community.

Patty Chamberlain came with a particular, as-yet-unrealized project she and a friend have in mind to create a resistance chorus. “I hope it will encourage me to be braver and get more involved instead of just singing,” she said, adding that singing itself has a long history of effecting social change through figures like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. “Do what you’re good at,” Chamberlain said, “and then hope you can push yourself to get a little bit outside of your comfort zone.”

That day in the church, Au Yong and Jafferis would keep on pushing. They’d hand out pads of paper and pens and invite participants to do some writing on the topics they’d just sung about. Those ideas would be shared and synthesized, and there would be more singing.

But first, there was marching. Au Yong summoned the group to their feet and sent them down the church’s aisles, looping around the pews, uniting in song. As they circled the sanctuary, they passed a pair of banners hung on the pillars that bore the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a proclamation: “Dream.”

Activist Songbook

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Judy Sirota Rosenthal. Image 1 features Byron Au Yong and, to his left, Patty Chamberlain. Image 4 features Aaron Jafferis. Image 5 features Paul Davies (in the gray shirt).

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