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Arts and Activism

by Sarah Rebell

Sometimes a spark of hope can come from the most unexpected of places. While anxiously scrolling through Instagram, in the dark, turbulent days shortly after Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, I noticed a post from composer Madeline Myers that revealed the voter registration and census work she was doing at Central Synagogue’s homeless breakfast program. I was incredibly moved by her actions and her assertion that “every voice deserves to be heard and that change is possible.”

After Myers’ post, I began paying closer attention to what my musically-minded colleagues were writing on social media. Rona Siddiqui, a composer and music director, shared that her application to become a poll worker had been accepted. Music director and conductor Macy Schmidt hinted that a new, socially-conscious initiative was in the works. It was clear these women were not giving in to quarantine fatigue, even after months of staying at home, with the theatre industry still shut down and the socio-political condition of the country more fraught than ever. These women were using their spare time for activism, their anger and devastation at current events fueling their motivation to fight back. 

I was intrigued and wanted to further investigate the relationship between arts and activism, particularly at this difficult moment in time. To that end, I spoke with eight different female artists, all women in music, about their recent activist experiences. At first glance, musicians might appear less likely to take action during a pandemic, when it is a challenge to safely use their skills as they were trained to do. After all, it is harder to perform music that requires a large ensemble virtually, via Zoom. And singing or playing wind instruments is especially risky right now, given high rates of COVID transmission. But these women were undeterred by such challenges.

In fact, Myers believes that the abilities that musicians have honed through years of training and practice enable them to become better advocates for and agents of change within their communities. According to her, musicians and theatre-makers are “uniquely positioned to make a difference in their communities because we possess and regularly exercise the kind of skills and muscles that are needed to make change: imagination, curiosity, creativity, problem-solving, voice.”

And indeed, what I discovered when speaking to the following eight women were not just acts of individual activism, but a sense of collective advocacy connected to a strong sense of community engagement within the music industry. Whether counting Americans for the census, participating in musical protest marches, composing songs to help get out the vote, or founding new musical organizations intended to champion a more diverse group of voices, these artist-activists are using their musicals skills and knowledge to empower others and to make the world a more equitable place.

 Action often starts with awareness. When Myers moved to New York, she began to grow “acutely aware of the homeless community.” And so, she started volunteering at Central Synagogue’s homeless breakfast program. Over the past four years, however, Myers has increasingly wanted to do more “at the ground level.” She decided that giving the homeless guests a meal was a good starting point, but it wasn’t enough. “I wanted to give them a voice, a chance to have a say in determining their own futures.” Myers began counting Central Synagogue’s homeless guests for the census and helping them register to vote. In the final weeks leading up to the presidential election, she has been providing the homeless guests with additional voter information, such as how to find their polling places. “What I’m realizing now is that— through the vote— I don’t want to just advocate for myself,” she explained. “I want to advocate for something much bigger than myself.”

Myers describes her experience volunteering with Central Synagogue’s homeless program as “deeply humbling and sobering.” It was also quite eye-opening for her. “Out in the real world, trying to talk to a person who has been chronically homeless for years, who sleeps on the subway or in a shelter or on a park bench, who feeds themselves solely through programs like the one Central provides, I found it was difficult to convince that person that their voice mattered and that it mattered more now than ever before.”

 When COVID led to the shutdown of the performances venues where usually worked, songwriter Erin McKeown decided to become a door-to-door enumerator for the United States census. “It felt very important to me to use my (relatively) young and healthy body for the physical work of our democracy,” McKeown explained, noting that “the census is of obvious paramount importance for accurate representation.”

In her September newsletter, McKeown noted how the skills she has honed over time as a singer-songwriter aided her in her census work. For instance, “I am unafraid of roads not traveled and new addresses,” she wrote, “and everything I need to know about talking to strangers I have learned and perfected at the merch[andise] table.” She believes that “most folks are truly good-hearted and willing to do whatever is necessary if you explain it to them simply and honestly.” From her time as a census worker, McKeown feels she “got a real sense of my community, warts and all.”

Community engagement is very meaningful to McKeown, who encourages any would-be artist activists to start by getting involved locally. She described her experiences doing activist work within her own town as the most rewarding. “It’s extremely vulnerable to stand up for what you believe in with people you see all the time, whom you share resources with, but it’s also the best way to create and sustain community.”

 Musician, performer, and writer Kyra Sims also believes in working at the local level. “We really need to be engaged and more cognizant of what’s going on right here,” she said. She attributes her experiences as a member of an experimental theatre company, the New York Neo-Futurists, to making her “aware of the world and the injustices around me. When you are writing truths, that seeps into your psyche and makes you want to do more.” The COVID-19 related eviction crisis motivated Sims to become involved with The Metropolitan Council on Housing, an organization that protects tenants from unjust evictions. She has done phone-banking to help them spread the word about an eviction protest event. “I really try to stay abreast of what they’re learning about what the housing and eviction courts are doing, what they’re learning about legislations and bills that are going through about housing. I think they’re doing really important work right now.”

That said, when it comes to the current presidential election, Sims appreciates the necessity of getting involved on a national level too. She recently organized a group of friends to write postcards to send to swing states, in her case, specifically, to voters in Texas. “It was very simple, clear language,” she explained. “The postcard was just encouraging them to remember to vote.” Sims’ postcards were part of a final push to make sure voters don’t forget to go to the polls. “My postcards were meant to get to them right before the election, so that they were more likely to remember to go.” For Sims, it was the first time she had participated in this type of project. “If doing this gets at least one more person to go out to vote, then I feel like that’s a win.”

In a very different way, Sims also helped to get out the vote this past summer, when she participated in the brass band of a musical protest march led by Jon Batiste. He led the band in songs such as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome,” and he spoke about the importance of voting in the presidential election. “It was a very inspiring day,” Sims recalled. “It was fun to play outside with other people again, and for such a good cause. We were out there saying the names of the unarmed Black men who had been shot by the police. We were also out there speaking truth to power, and saying there is so much that has to be done but the simplest thing we can do right now is vote.” Being a writer as well as musician, Sims wrote about her experience on Medium, where she described feeling elated “to finally be able to contribute my skills to the greater good. To use my 22 years of classical French horn training to disturb the peace and make a joyful noise.”

Photo Credit: Ragan Clark

 Some composers and lyricists have been specifically using their writing skills to advocate for change, particularly in regard to the upcoming election. Christine Toy Johnson is no stranger to the notion of using her craft and skills for such a purpose; she has spent much of her theatrical career “trying to change the narrative.” A performer, playwright, and lyricist, Johnson has served as the former chair of Actor’s Equity’s National Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. She is also a founding member of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, and she is the current chair of The Dramatists Guild’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, where she hosts their podcast TALKBACK. (In full disclosure, I’ve worked with Johnson on this podcast, which shines a light on the important issues of representation and access in the theatre.)

Johnson’s commitment to social justice has fueled her writing career. When she realized that she wasn’t seeing Asian American cultures represented accurately onstage, she was driven to create her own work. “The more we reflect the world as it really is in our storytelling, the better it is for everyone,” Johnson said. “The arts have that unique ability to shift perceptions of who we are and what we can do, not only for ourselves but for each other, if we take away the barriers that have been present.”

Recently, Johnson’s advocacy work has extended to participating in multiple Zoom benefits, such as the Cats4COVIDRelief fundraiser, for which she wrote the script and played the part of Sillabub (her old role from her days performing in the National Tour of Cats). Through her lyric writing, she has also been working to help create socio-political change. She collaborated with Notorious Pink, Scott Killian, and fellow Maestra Kim Sherman on a song inspired by Broadway For Biden called “The Soul of the Nation,” which was recorded by fifty Broadway singers.

Even before the pandemic, Johnson was used to virtual collaborations; she described the process of writing the song via Zoom and email as “a very easy and fruitful collaboration.” Although it was quite a feat to coordinate so many singers, Johnson credited the “fantastic editors on sound and video” for an “extremely well organized and expertly handled” virtual recording process. “They gave us all very explicit directions for how they wanted us to record our vocals and then our video,” Johnson explained, adding that the musical director, Debra Barsha, also provided them with a video track of herself conducting.

She described “The Soul of the Nation” as “very moving” and “very hopeful,” with a strong message encouraging people to rise up for the sake of the country. She found inspiration in some of the language from Biden’s campaign materials, including the title and hook: “We’re in the battle for the soul of the nation.” One of the primary themes of the lyric is unity, which Johnson believes is a strong core message of the campaign. “It was really important for us to get out a message of hope and activation for us to come together and vote and work towards unity.”

 Rona Siddiqui has also spent the past few months writing songs with an eye towards getting out the vote for the upcoming election. The composer and music director has always been passionate about social justice issues, but, being an introvert, Siddiqui has tended to keep those feelings to herself.  The events of this past year changed that. “The gross mishandling of COVID by the federal government while New Yorkers and people all over the country needlessly suffered (and continue to suffer) followed by the death of George Floyd and the BLM protests fired me up in a way I have not felt before,” Siddiqui said. It got to the point where she could no longer stay silent. “It feels like an obligation to be vocal about standing up for human rights right now in this country.” Siddiqui has come to realize the positive power inherent in adding her own voice to “the collective strength of voices working to lift up the oppressed” in the arts community and beyond. And, she adds, “Voting is the most direct way of making our voices heard that we’ve got in this country.”

When her friend, director Stephen Nachamie, invited her to join his organization Just One Step For Democracy, Siddiqui was eager to participate. She became part of a group of artists-activists who collectively created content that encouraged people to engage with the upcoming presidential election. Siddiqui contributed music and/or lyrics to multiple music videos for the organization, including “Change the World,” “Just One Step,” Scotus, and Gerrymandering. The latter two videos are from the Knowledge Rules series, which Siddiqui refers to as “a Schoolhouse Rock type series that could teach short civics lessons on topics important to this election.”

Siddiqui truly practices what she preaches. Not only did she take on the “fun and satisfying work” of writing songs to get out the vote, she also signed up to be a poll worker. Siddiqui was motivated to apply for the position as part of her “ongoing commitment to making sure people can exercise their right to vote with as few impediments as possible.” She is mindful of the fact that many of the traditional poll workers are elderly, and therefore more susceptible to COVID-19. She wants to help keep the voting process running smoothly, despite challenges and complications caused by the pandemic.We must exercise our right to vote to show ourselves and the world that our democracy is salvageable.”

 Songwriters are not the only musicians in the Maestra community who have been using their skillsets to create social change this year. Within the past month, two brand new activist organizations have established themselves in the music industry, Musicians United for Social Equity (MUSE) and The Broadway Sinfonietta, both of which are committed to ensuring that the voices of BIPOC artists are heard. Two female music directors of color played a crucial part in the creation of the respective organizations. At MUSE, music director Ilana Atkins is the self-described “glue holding all the pieces together.” Atkins is one of the Founding Members of MUSE and has become the unofficial stage manager of the founding team. Not only does she keep track of the time and the agenda, but she also tries to “help facilitate and create a space where people’s ideas can be heard and legitimized.”

Atkins attributes the existence of MUSE to the combination of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. “Theatre shut down, and all of a sudden, people had all of this time to think,” she said. “And then, there was a conversation that crept up that was the resurgence of Black Lives Matter.” At that point, people in the theatre industry realized that they needed to hire more Black musicians. The founders of MUSE, including Maestra members Georgia Stitt and Mary-Mitchell Campbell, wanted to ensure that the devaluing and misrepresentation of BIPOC musicians doesn’t resume when theatre reopens.

Right now, and for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, MUSE plans to build up its directory of Black and Brown musicians. “It is imperative that you market yourself on the directory,” said Atkins. “We’re hoping that someone sees you [in the directory] and hires you.”  In some respects, the directory is similar to the Maestra directory, but MUSE’s has a category called “styles expertise,” which is intended to prevent its members from “getting pigeonholed into Black musicals.” Instead, members will be able to share their specific and authentic musical strengths and hopefully be hired “for the skills that they have, as opposed to the color of their skin.”

MUSE is also committed to providing educational opportunities for BIPOC musicians, including mentorships and apprenticeships. One such example is the music assistantship fellowship that is being developed by co-founder Stephen Oremus. The founders of MUSE hope that the fellowship will enable young musicians from disadvantaged backgrounds to work in professional music departments, early on in their careers. “We’re specifically looking at how we can develop this fellowship so that we get people in who are being offered a music assistantship but can’t afford to take it because it’s not paying enough,” Atkins explained.

In Atkins’ experience, the tight-knit Broadway music industry provides few openings to Black women, especially those who look young, as she does. “I have had to hustle so hard to make my work be taken seriously,” she said. But now, MUSE is creating multiple doors through which to enter the industry, “opening up blocks of opportunity for people, so you don’t have to just come through one door to get seen and be heard.”

 As a woman of color, music director Macy Schmidt is well aware of the challenges that Atkins mentioned.  “Female musicians often have twice as much to prove — when women (let alone women of color) create something, it needs to be of such impeccable quality in order to be taken seriously, and there’s little-to-no room for error,” she said. Schmidt feels strongly that there is no need “to wait another generation for qualified female BIPOC musicians. They’re already here.”

To that end, Schmidt recently founded The Broadway Sinfonietta, a new orchestral collective that is primarily made up of musicians who are female, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. As with the founders of MUSE, the powerful presence of the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer challenged and inspired Schmidt to take a closer look at the systemic bias inherent in the rehearsal rooms in which she had been working prior to advent of COVID. “Given the crisis and shutdown facing Broadway, I wanted to find a way to create paid work opportunities for female BIPOC musicians.” Schmidt is mindful of the fact that “most artists are facing a long road of unemployment” right now, due to the shutdown. In the short term, she feels that it is “a tangible, meaningful, attainable mission to simply provide employment.”

But for Schmidt, the ultimate, long-term goal of the Sinfonietta is “to show off the excellence of female BIPOC musicians, orchestrators, contractors, etc. who are already here.” She is hopeful that the existence of this collective will lead to a more racially diverse makeup of music departments on Broadway, explaining that “it’s been exciting to discover just how many female BIPOC musicians already have the skills, qualifications, and interest to work on Broadway.”

In late October, CBS debuted The Broadway Sinfonietta’s first music video, which features Schmidt’s new arrangement of Andre and Dory Previn’s song “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” sung by vocalist Solea Pfeiffer and performed by eighteen female musicians on fourteen different instruments. The music was recorded in-person, an increasingly rare feat these days. Having dealt with “Zoom fatigue” from plenty of virtual collaborations herself, Schmidt knew she wanted the recording experience to take place in-person as much as possible. Of course, safety was of the utmost importance to Schmidt, who worked with a safety coordinator and tested all musicians and crew members for COVID-19 prior to the recording sessions. They used the CDC recommendations for guidance, “only recording four to five musicians at a time in small, short chunks throughout the day, making sure everyone was positioned at least six feet apart,” Schmidt explained.

“The way they organized it was very considerate and very safe as far as taking the COVID-19 pandemic into account,” said Kyra Sims, who played the French horn for the recording. “I was part of the shift with the other brass musicians. We were spread very far apart. We had masks on if we weren’t playing.” Participating in the Sinfonietta is very meaningful to Sims. “We’re here and we’re not just diversity hires,” said, referencing the messaging from some of the Sinfonietta’s promo videos. “We’re hire-able based on our own merit.”

 The Broadway Sinfonietta is not the only musical organization that has been working to find creative solutions to the challenges of in-person music performances during COVID. On the first day of early voting in New York City, the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished (TDU) presented Music on the March, a series of five simultaneous outdoor concerts that took place live in all five boroughs of the city and streamed on Zoom as well. TDU is a volunteer orchestra, primarily made up of BIPOC musicians and arts administrators. Access is a crucial element of each performance; TDU wants to ensure that people of all racial and economic backgrounds are able to enjoy their concerts without having to pay high ticket prices or take the subway to midtown.

The structure of the live concerts was shaped by pandemic safety precautions. Each performance had four string players and one vocalist, all of whom were masked. There was no planned audience because of the rules against large gatherings; instead, the music was performed for spontaneous passers-by. “We’re trying to make it so that [the musicians] are all safe, our audiences are all safe, and we can start to perform music again without any risk to their health,” said TDU’s secretary and assistant conductor Fernanda Douglas.

For those audience members who attended via Zoom, each of the five concerts was accessible through a breakout room. People could go from room to room and watch all five concerts, remotely, if they chose to do so. Douglas hopes that this innovative use of Zoom breakout rooms could “set a new precedent for how we perform music online and live.” Regardless of whether audiences came to the virtual or live versions of the concerts, they were given information on voter registration, either via email or a QR code.

The concert’s emphasis on voter registration was very much intentional. Even before COVID hit, TDU had planned to focus their season around voting rights, but the shutdown motivated the orchestra to go even further with their efforts. “We started thinking about how we could possibly keep engaging with the communities that are most in danger of being disenfranchised and of missing information about voting deadlines,” Douglas said. “So, we started to turn our attention to creating content that we could put out to get more information out to the communities.” Other voting initiatives from TDU included a musical video series called #nycvotes and the 10-09 micro concert series, which took place at 10:09 am for two weeks leading up to October 9th (10/09), the voter registration deadline in New York State.

As Douglas explained, this orchestra does not program pieces for “purely aesthetic, artistic” reasons. Founded in the wake of the deaths of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown during the initial emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, TDU has always used music to advocate for “social change.” Douglas finds it “inspiring” to be able to combine her passions for music and advocacy through her work with TDU. 

“Music and activism can be part of the same movement. We can use our artistry, our personal drive, and our interest in social justice to get information out to voters.”

Fernanda Douglas

For all the important work that nonprofits like TDU are doing, arts organizations are often overlooked and undervalued, especially now. Some groups, like Be An Arts Hero, have been putting out statistics that emphasize the strong financial impact of performing arts industry on the economic well-being of the country, which is necessary if we want governmental support through legislation like the Save our Stages Act or the DAWN bill. And yet, it is just as vital to remember the social and cultural value that arts and arts training adds to our society. These eight women have demonstrated how readily their musical skills can lend themselves to civic engagement and social advocacy.

“Democracy is founded on a principal of people being heard. We the people have to be engaged in whatever way that means,” Johnson said. She wants to encourage people to “find your own way to engage, and to speak up for what you believe in, and then live those words.”

Of course, this sort of civic engagement is often easier said than done, especially in a country with a history of attempting to discount the voices and votes of many marginalized people. McKeown noted that voter suppression has historically been tied into racist practices in this country, such as the emergence of the Jim Crow Laws during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. “We had a moment of Black folks beginning to have political representation and power. Jim Crow comes about specifically to undermine and crush that from every direction. That should tell you everything you need to know about the importance of voting.”

“It’s hard not to feel deeply frightened by the voter suppression and other threats to democracy that we’ve only seen grow since the 2016 election,” Myers reflected, adding that “it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and despairing these days when there is so much that is fractured in our world.” Nevertheless, she persists in her hope and in her activism. “I think each of us can look for our individual places in healing these fractures. None of us has to solve everything, but each of us can solve something.”

Are you ready to vote? Check out the following resources, shared by Rona Siddiqui:

On Election Protection:

On Voter Information:

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