The Resistance Revival Chorus was launched in the summer of 2017, born out of the Women’s March in D.C. and in response to the need to “bring joy to the resistance.” The collective is comprised of seventy professional singers, lifelong activists, and community-focused individuals who identify as women and non-binary. Last year they gave a stunning performance at the 37d03d Festival (People Fest) at Pioneer Works and were due to play this year’s Village Fête in April. Ahead of their special, Pioneer Works-curated performance at the Red Hook Fest on Saturday at 2 P.M., Justin Frye talked with members Jessie Olsen and Nara Garber about their upcoming record, organizing, and bringing joy to the current Black Lives Matter protests. The following is an edit of their audio conversation.
The performance y'all did on your own [at the People Fest last year at Pioneer Works], and then, with Big Red Machine, were these big, amazing, moving, shows which gave me and everyone else chills. Are there really sixty members in the Chorus?
Since the time that I joined the group I've been trying to figure out what the largest group of us has actually been. It may have been for Harry Belafonte's birthday because who does not want to sing at Harry Belafonte's birthday? But there are also two very different types of performances. There are the performances scheduled long in advance and then there are the performances at protests and rallies which tend to be with much shorter lead time.
Justin: And when y'all perform, I noticed that you tend to wear all white. Can you talk about that decision?
Go ahead Nara.
Why don't you take that? [Laughs]
Okay. So the Resistance Revival Chorus, I think originally white became a part of our visual aesthetic because there was a really huge sale at Rainbow on . . . No. Because in the suffragette movement the protesters often wore white, women wore all white. There's a through line throughout American history, especially of women and Black folks who are protesting wearing white as a symbol of unity.
At the Black Trans Lives Matter event at the Brooklyn Museum this past Saturday I am so used to being able to find other members of the Chorus. We weren't singing on Saturday but a number of us were there and it was kind of funny to be looking for other people in that context and realizing no, I see 15,000 people wearing white but I am not able to pick out the RRC members.
Fran Tirado, one of the organizers of the Black Trans Lives protests, said he was inspired, or they were inspired, by protests in New York when the NAACP assembled 10,000 people wearing all white standing up against anti-Black violence in 1917.
Well it's amazing how much room for personal expression there is within the parameters of wearing all white. I think in some ways it actually highlights individual differences much more with the uniformity of color.
The group started after the Women's March in 2017, and I'm curious how it came out of a protest?
The story kind of begins with Nelini Stamp, Sarah Sophie Flicker, Ginny Suss, Paola Mendoza, Shruti Ganguly, and there are a bunch of folks who had met each other through the Women's March. I did production for the march in D.C. I had the headset on and knew Ginny through that world and that was kind of how I got looped in.
I think there were a few different things that led to it but there was a conversation about where the arts fit in. I also know that when we were prepping for the Women's March we were working out of Harry Belafonte's office. His message and the work that he did was very much kind of reverberating through all of us during that time. And I think after the march there was a desire for more momentum to continue. And we knew that there were going to be more protests, and there was going to be a bigger cultural reckoning, and that singing is a really accessible way into cultural expression and creative expression, because we all have voices and I'm of a mind that anyone with a voice can sing.
Right, and there's always the part of the lore—when the movement is strong the music is strong—of Harry Belafonte having said that. What Jessie says about this presidency obviously paving the way for... it wasn't going to be an isolated protest. The need for resistance was going to permeate this entire four years and so I think that in different times maybe the Chorus would not have continued to burgeon as it had.
The Resistance Revival Chorus was born from the hangover from the Women's March. We very quickly started creating our own community, our own way of being with each other.
The Resistance Revival Chorus was born out of the hangover from the Women's March. We very quickly started creating our own community, our own way of being with each other.
So how does that work? You have this collective idea and then you have a smaller core group?
I wouldn't say core group. We definitely have a group of Chorus members who rotate out the role of leading the Chorus. We have a musical director and music coordinator. Abena Koomson-Davis is our musical director and those—that team kind of does a lot of the figuring out what songs we're going to do and figuring out how things are going to be arranged and that kind of stuff. And we have a core group of very intentionally Black women who lead the group, and we rotate that out based on availability and based on if you're particularly passionate about the mission of a certain gig.
And we have folks who take more leadership around direct action things, folks who have a background in organizing who do a bit more of the work to get us all together for really quick turnaround protest performances.
I think that's the glory of having seventy people. There are so many people who are professional musicians who might be touring for six months, or who have a project that will take them elsewhere, but knowing that they can come back and that they're welcome back.
I remember talking to people at the Pioneer Works show about the potential of expanding and having chapters in other places. Are the seventy members all in New York or are they spread out around the country?
We just recently produced a video in conjunction with several of the sister choruses. The seventy is limited to the New York group.
Our website basically has a full "So you want to start a chorus?" manual. And I think it's very much the intention that, you know, this music is the people's music. This is not music that we're holding too precious. It's music for everyone to be singing and everyone should be singing and learning. I mean I grew up with a lot of these songs and I know a lot of other members of the Chorus did too, and it's an oral tradition and part of that oral tradition is helping spread this on and so that's kind of part of what the Chorus is doing. Someday we'll be able to get on planes again and go visit our sister choruses and have a big old people residency, but it's just Resistance Revival Choruses. It'll be great. If anyone wants to write a grant for that please do.
How does the process work for writing originals?
There's a bunch of different ways that songs—original songs come to the Chorus, but sometimes it looks like it's from a songwriting session and sometimes it's, you know, someone who has been working on a song on their own, brings it to the group, workshops it with members of the group, and then we learn it. We performed at Washington Square Park a couple weeks or a week ago, and Abby Dobson who's a member of the Chorus who is an absolute genius, amazing, brilliant human . . .
I'm getting chills at this story because it's such a magical moment.
She wrote a song called “Say Her Name” that unfortunately has been getting longer since she first wrote it and she's performed it a few times at what we call Resistance Revival Nights that used to be in real life showcases at music venues and now we do them virtually on Facebook. But Abby performed that song solo, and the members of the Chorus that were there, we stood behind her with signs of the women's names, we chanted the names along with her. So while that's not a song that was originally written specifically for the Chorus and by the Chorus, it's something that one of our Chorus members wrote and we have the honor of performing with her. And there's a lot of—there's a lot more stuff like that that's happening.
It's not a conventional top-down hierarchy.
Not at all. Not at all. But yeah, that's kind of the way we're really—like with everything—we're deep in the messy practice of democracy in the smallest of ways.
And specifically with creating the album Tiffany Gouche was our producer and she had to, you know, it's an album and so it has to cohere as an album and I do not envy anybody having had to make those decisions about what songs couldn't fit in. I do agree there should be a second album and it will be rich.
Justin: I'm curious about your personal experiences in the project and if there's anything that y'all feel like you've learned personally just through being a part of this.
I pathologically avoid joining groups. I'm not a group person. I for some reason am so fearful of groupthink of any kind that the second I hear something that begins to approach sort of groupthink or mob mentality, even if it's mob mentality that I agree with, I recoil. And so this is one of the first groups that I have very, very willingly joined—and it is a group. I mean, it is a collective. It's a messy collective. We don't always agree. There is just a sense of mutual support that whatever our differences are they're differences that are recognized as something that we need to work through, and I don't think that's always the case when you're in a group as large as the Resistance Revival Chorus.
What has the quarantine done to your process?
Well Jessi and I were chatting right before this, spent an hour beforehand, and I was saying I miss the Chorus right now more than ever, not because of the quarantine but because of everything that has happened since George Floyd's murder.
The sisterhood is deeply missed. I just miss hugging people really bad and singing because there have been a few instances with church choirs where they're not wearing masks and they're singing in a closed room and then everyone gets COVID and it's horrible. We're trying to be super conscious of that and conscientious and, you know, when we do get together for protests we're all wearing masks, we're all basically bathed in hand sanitizer. But I found myself the first week of going out for these huge protests during the pandemic. I was teaching people who I don't know the songs we sing.
Justin: So do y'all absorb people from the protests? Are there new members coming onboard every time you go out?
I mean I would think so, but who knows what's going on with new members right now? But it was just very funny and brought me to tears to be walking through midtown Manhattan in a protest. My first time leaving my house in months with friends who are not in the chorus but are friends of mine and teaching them these songs that are so powerful and I hold so dear and I know inside and out and being like man, I really wish I was the one to sing the alto part but, you know . . . But it's like these songs are needed right now and we're still figuring out the best ways to bring them to folks. But it's also like you can yell chants over and over again. There's something about singing a chant together or singing a song together that brings a different energy.
And the history that comes with so many of these songs really resonates with people as well. I remember at the impeachment rally when the Chorus had been asked to sing and lead the march and hold the banner at the front of the march. You know, the march went on for a while so we cycled through some of the songs and there were definitely people who, you know, knew the lyrics to the chorus at least by the end. And it was like okay, we are maybe twelve in number but I think maybe we've annexed another twelve.
Being in a protest and getting a handful of people to sing "Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on free . . ." Like you can move to that. You can walk to that. That's great.
It being participatory, obviously people feel more involved. When people are like, "I don't know what to do with myself," singing grounds you and breath grounds you and singing is breathing.
I started seeing more of the musical protests around when the curfew kicked in in New York. The idea of being told, “No nightlife for you.”
Can't do that.
A tragic part of all of this is that the songs from the civil rights movement and before the civil rights movement are so necessary right now.
Jessie: Like got all the musicians together like excuse me, what? No? No, we will have nightlife damn it, come hell or high water. At Grand Army Plaza there's been a regular drum circle, and there was already the drum circle in the southern part of Prospect Park that has been there forever and has a very deep, spiritual vibe. And then seeing that kind of vibe get brought to Grand Army Plaza which is kind of a starting place for a lot of protests has been really beautiful to see. A tragic part of all of this is that the songs from the civil rights movement and before the civil rights movement are so necessary right now.
Justin: Is there anything that y'all are really looking forward to that's on the horizon with the Chorus?
It's funny because going into this summer there was a lineup of really big acts. We were supposed to have been at Bonnaroo last weekend. And Newport Jazz Festival and . . . but I think there's such a huge societal shift right now that it will be ripe for exploring how the Chorus can kind of evolve with this. I think we're all being forced to evolve in ways that are necessary and not necessarily comfortable. I think we're not excited about anything tangible right now because our whole schedule has been wiped clean. But I'm actually excited to see what music will come out of this.
Same. And we are finding as—especially in New York as the COVID rates continue to hopefully go down and we all continue to be super safe and we also all continue to all be out in the streets I think there's going to be a lot more chances for us to be together and singing because for the most part everyone in the Chorus is at protests every night anyway. I am looking forward to the ways in which we have created this kind of beautiful, radical community. I'm excited to see how we can be a part of the movement more, and to see how the ways we have collectively built this community, and the ways we have walked head-on into the messy work that we all have to be doing right now in shaking up hierarchies and decentralizing and supporting one another with really deep, true, real, honest care, that way that we've been with each other feels vital right now. And I'm excited to see the way that continues to seep into all of our worlds and to have the Chorus kind of be a resource, especially in the music world, for folks who want to be in similar ways with each other.