Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” Long before I considered myself a real activist—or an organizer—that sentiment was always the most compelling reason for making art. I grew up in the Bay Area, a child of the ’90s—listening to my parent’s favorites, Patti Smith, Alice Coltrane, Malvina Reynolds, Joan Baez, Sweet Honey and The Rock, Tuck & Patti. San Francisco was home to an incredible underground music scene of dominated by women. The Sister Spit tour with Eileen Myles and Michelle Tea was birthed at the dyke café-slash-activist hub the Bearded Lady, for example, and I remember I got to hang out with Exene Cervenka of X and Joan Jett. What they had done was always political.
Back then, people were political, and they had to be—their friends were dying every day from AIDS, and I had so many friends who were touched on some level by the AIDS crisis. I came in on the tail end of Act Up—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—and it always struck me how its members and organizers infused their activism with poetry, creativity and humor.
My first success employing the arts as a mode of resistance was with the Citizens Band, which I founded with Jorjee Douglass in 2004, shortly after the invasion of Iraq and the during re-election campaign for George W. Bush. We used old songs, which spoke to what was going on politically when they were written but also spoke to the politics of 2004, to promote the idea that while none of these issues were new, a new approach was certainly needed to fight them.
The Citizens Band made me realize that sometimes we can have a greater effect changing hearts and minds with art than we can on an aggressively political level. The arts establish a different entry point for individuals to get involved. That is to say, someone might not show up for the I Stand with Colin Kaepernick rally outside the NFL headquarters in New York—but they might attend the Women’s March’s new Resistance Revival chorus.
My work with the Women’s March has primarily centered on culture, whether soliciting artwork for the march or creating the “Why I March” videos or, as in the case of Signs of Resistance, created by our social media director Alyssa Klein, highlighting artists working in political spheres. The Women’s March succeeded in tapping into the cultural elements of the politics of the election and its aftermath, and we are continuing to do so with all our cultural outreach, including Daring Discussions, the Women’s Convention in October, and the Resistance Revival chorus.
With Resistance Revival nights, we aim to reach an audience who might not be otherwise engaged. We held the second edition of the Resistance Revival Monday, but we’re also aiming for these choruses to become rapid responders that can crop up across the country. Two of the most powerful images of resilience from Charlottesville earlier in the month were rooted in music: While white nationalists gathered at the Unite the Right rally, a group of faith leaders from various religions joined in counter-protest, singing songs from each of their respective faiths; and at the candlelight vigil for Heather Heyer, peers, students, and Charlottesville residents started up a chorus of songs like “Lean On Me,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Amazing Grace.”
At the same time, it’s a common criticism that it’s easy for individuals to consume a piece of political art but still become complacent, and that a cultural entry point can lead nowhere. But the arts give people language and perspective they might not have had before. I recently revisited a TEDx talk Erica Chenoweth gave four years ago, in which she explains it takes just 3.5 percent of a population to create a successful movement. In the United States, that amounts to just more than 11 million people who are active in the resistance. Still, an entry point doesn’t just mean physically showing up to a protest or rally. It also involves creating language and ways of thinking about things that might be different from how we thought of things before. It means creating an opportunity to share a piece of music or visual art or a television show that not only depicts an underrepresented group but also helps you think differently.
Though subtle, representation is one of the most effective ways of changing people’s ideas, of uplifting a shared humanity—of making us realize we’re not all as different as we think. As my Women’s March co-conspirator Paola Mendoza always points out, shows like Will and Grace, which is returning this fall after a decade-long hiatus, and the Ellen DeGeneres Show were among the forefront of series putting gay men and women into our living rooms.
Erica Chenoweth, who delivered that TEDx talk in 2013, is an expert in non-violent movements, and she has become a friend of the Women’s March. She always reminds us of the importance of diversifying your tactics and of getting creative in non-violent methods of protesting injustices. The Trump administration has forced us into a defensive crouch, and we have had to get really creative. That is, how do you speak across all these perceived differences we have, and in different and compelling ways?
The Resistance Revival chorus is, in many ways, a response to that question. At the same time, as I think about the role of the Resistance Revival, I come back to something Harry Belafonte said when the Women’s March was working out of his office at the Gathering for Justice: “Sometimes, you have to preach to the choir if you want them to keep on singing.” The past eight months have been more brutal, more chaotic, and more upsetting than we ever thought possible. The pace of the tweets and the policy proposals coming down have been occurring on a more frantic level than any of us could have imagined. The Resistance Revival is a restoration of force, a restoration of hope, a restoration of joy, a restoration of people coming together in community.
When individuals come together in community—be it at a march or a music night—it makes them feel less alone.
It is easy to underestimate how much of a culture war we’re in right now. This administration has not been able to pass any large policy proposals. But nevertheless, the executive orders keep coming—the Muslim ban, the wall, the ban on transgender individuals in the military, the gutting of healthcare—and where the Trump administration has been successful is emboldening white supremacy, anti-Semitism, sexism, islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-immigration attitudes. And they have tried to gaslight us; who among us has not, in the past eight months, stopped and thought, wait, is it me? Am I not getting it? An essential element of resisting in a culture war is creating our own culture, one based in love and community and diversity and intersectionality. Not only is the Resistance Revival about visiting old protest songs—it is also about our hope to create new music.
Belafonte, with whom we worked closely on the Women’s March, is a shining example of an artist taking his platform and using it for social good. So I end with a rallying call to the arts community: If you have the information and the passion, please be loud. Democracy dies in silence. Your voice only encourages other people to be loud, people who might be alone or silenced or feel like they don’t have the language. You can give people that language through music, through visuals, through film, through television. You help shape the culture. The fuel that keeps us going is work that reflects what our future should look like, that gives us a blueprint of what we could be.
As told to Katherine Cusumano.
Sarah Sophie Flicker was part of a team of women who made history as the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington. Revisit how the march came together, here: