Songs of Liberation: Creating a Soundtrack for the Animal Rights Movement

By Eva Hamer

Early in my career as a music therapist, I met a dying man who was mourning the loss of his wife. Despite being able to walk, he lay in bed all day, depressed and in pain from his illness. Although slightly skeptical of my reason for visiting, he answered questions about his pain and accepted my offer to provide live music. Upon hearing a familiar ballad, he immediately began to cry, in stark contrast to the blank expression he wore at our greeting. Between songs from his younger years, he told me about his wedding, early marriage, and children. He sometimes laughed, recalling his wife’s playful nature and strong will. By the end of our visit, the furrow in his brow had softened and he was planning to ask his son over for dinner. I asked again about his pain. “What pain?” he asked, smiling.

During this visit, I was most concerned with the man’s  loneliness  and suffering in his final weeks or months. The music allowed us to share space together without demanding more from him than his fatigue would allow. When he needed a break from talking, I would start another song, and if no words came at the end of that one, I would start another, allowing for a nonverbal companionship. Music additionally provided emotional catharsis, freeing him to express the grief he quietly held for the months ever since his wife’s passing.Lastly, our visit provided him a much-needed distraction from pain, taking attention away from his body long enough for it to relax or for pain medication to start working.

Music  has the potential to connect emotionally with people like few other things do. I am interested in the ways that music works on different groups of people, and specifically how we can use it to build a stronger animal rights movement. Past social justice movements have used music for numerous purposes. Examining these can encourage and guide our use of music to create a better world for nonhuman animals.

Mighty Times: The Children’s March, a documentary about a 1963 Civil Rights protest in Birmingham, displays several functions of music in the civil rights movement.

Music was used to:

Support group cohesion- Largely organized in church, religious music supported a sense of group identity for the protesters and the movement at large. Music at church also functioned to:

Communicate values- Songs contained important messages of nonviolence, perseverance, and equality. The documentary uses the examples of ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,’ ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and ’Walking and talking with my mind set on freedom.’

Support high morale in times of stress. A protestor recalls sitting in a full jail for two weeks, hearing the boys singing from their cell and the girls answering them in song. She laughs as she recalls her time in jail.

Communicate information to those inside the movement. Shelley “The Playboy” Stewart was a radio DJ who used his station to spread the word about the upcoming march, with a combination of coded language and his choice of songs to play.

Support nonviolent resistance Protester Dominiqua Lint recalls getting arrested, “I think when the police arrested us, they thought that we would be afraid, and start to cry. They had strange looks to see that we were happy, and singing, and glad to be arrested.” Singing is a way to outwardly display that the spirit is not broken while accepting consequences for nonviolent direct action.

As direct action- One protester recalled water hoses used against protesters by firefighters and the police, “You can see that the first blast of water dispersed the crowds but when the water subsided there were 10 kids still standing and they were singing one word over and over- freedom” In this case, music itself is civil disobedience.

Music in the civil rights movement was also used to:

Document history- On September 15, 1963, as a direct response to successful protests for equal rights, white supremacist terrorists bombed the 16th street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four little girls and injuring 22 others. The next year, their names and stories were immortalized in a song recorded by Joan Baez, Birmingham Sunday.

Communicate urgency to those outside the movement. In 1939, long before the protests leading to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Billie Holiday performed her first rendition of the song “Strange Fruit”, describing lynchings in the south. The song was later called, "a declaration of war... the beginning of the civil rights movement." by record producer Ahmet Ertegun.

Implications for the Animal Rights Movement

Ernesto Melchor’s ‘Liberation’ has ignited our music culture, executing many of the functions described above. Performance of the song has built group cohesion by creating a musical experience through which many people can sing together. A recent example shows a group of activists singing the song in celebration of the acquittal of Anita Krajnk, found not guilty of criminal mischief for giving water to thirsty pigs as part of the Save Movement. The value of taking the victimized animal’s perspective is communicated in this song to those both inside and outside of the movement. Most notably, the song has been used as direct action during nonviolent disruptions of stores and other places that commit violence against animals.

Our musical culture has room to grow.  Many of the songs that have so far been written are compiled into a living, cloud based document, The Animal Liberation Songbook. This songbook provides lyrics and chords to songs that support animal rights messaging, as well as links to recordings where available. Activists are encouraged to write and submit original songs or lyric rewrites. This songbook is meant to be a resource for protest, community events, and individual repertoire building. Together, we can build a strong musical culture to create a better world for every animal.

Want to get involved? DxE is a grassroots network focused on empowering you to be the best activist you can be. Here are some steps you can take. 

  1. Sign up to our mailing list and share our content on social media. 
  2. Join a local DxE community (or, better yet, come visit us in Berkeley).
  3. Take the Liberation Pledge. And join us in building a true social movement for animals.

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