Why Did We Ever Stop Singing?

Dr. Vincent Harding
Dr. Vincent Harding

I’m watching Henry Louis Gates’ series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and listening to the music of No Enemies, the music that makes America great. My mentor Dr. Vincent Harding gave encouragement and inspiration to No Enemies to sing the movement into being (see more about them below). Listen to No Enemies music at this SoundCloud link. Why did we ever stop singing?

No Enemies: Call and Response is a series of gatherings initiated by Jamie Laurie and Stephan Brackett of the Flobots. At No Enemies, the public gathers to compose, rehearse, and exchange songs that will later be deployed on the streets. A social experiment in political art-making, the monthly  meetings blend community organizing with choir practice in a celebratory atmosphere sometimes reminiscent of a Baptist church service. Someone might introduce a simple tune that the crowd practices and refines; alternately, small groups will break off to focus on building a song collaboratively, often to address specific issues ranging from transportation inequality and police brutality to gentrification and the oppression of Denver’s undocumented population.

As social activists and musicians, Laurie and Brackett found inspiration in the Southern Freedom Movement and one of its leaders, Dr. Vincent Harding, who mentored the pair before his passing last year. Those who knew Harding use words like “guide,” “sage” and “encourager” to describe him. An activist and scholar in his lifetime, he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and drafted several of his speeches, including “A Time to Break Silence,” in which King officially declared his opposition to the Vietnam War. Harding also contributed to the sit-ins that helped dissolve official segregation. He eschewed the more popular term “civil-rights movement,” because for him the struggle encompassed but also transcended individual civil rights: At stake was the unequivocal and complete freedom of minorities in the South and everywhere — hence the Southern Freedom Movement.

Breaking silence and empowering people to speak out against injustice was Harding’s talent and calling. Laurie and Harding started meeting regularly in 2000, after Laurie sat in on a class that Harding was teaching at the Iliff School of Theology. Laurie describes how, “with a few questions, [Harding] could make you feel very important. Taking an interest in us, he compelled us to be fully the leaders we could be.” For his part, Harding had always stressed the role that music played in the Southern Freedom Movement — he called it a “primary tool” — and he was compelled by the Flobots’ mix of activism and art. Nonetheless, he called on the band’s members to “do more, think more seriously about what music could contribute,” Laurie recalls. At Harding’s memorial last spring at the Iliff School, Laurie, inspired by the memory of his ally and guide, conceived of No Enemies. The idea — to create a series of workshops where groups could cultivate music embedded in social movements themselves — “basically became fully formed” that day, he says.–Luke Leavitt, NO ENEMIES EXPLORES THE POWER OF PROTEST MUSIC

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