University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Raise Your Voice

Alumna Abbie Betinis and alumnus Ahmed Fernando Anzaldúa say collective singing promotes social and environmental justice.

Photos courtesy of the artists

Imagine it's the night of a rally and everyone has gathered. Protest signs are held aloft and candles are lit. But this assemblage is still just satellites of disparate humans, unconnected to one another. Then someone starts to sing. Another voice joins in. Soon, the whole group is singing. As voices are raised, those unconnected people become a unified, focused group.

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Click here to join, launch your own chapter of the organization, or download the Justice Choir songbook.

That’s what happens when a chapter of Justice Choir leads people in song—at protest marches, rallies, and vigils all over the United States. This grassroots movement founded in Minneapolis was formed on the principle that singing together can make a difference in the world for social justice.

Abbie Betinis (M.A. ‘07) cofounded Justice Choir after participating in the Minnesota’s Women’s March protest on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Betinis says while the march on the St. Paul Capitol was certainly cold and decidedly energizing, she noticed how quiet the marchers were, and how they tended to stay within their own groups. “How could we, here in Minnesota, ‘choral country’ no less, have missed an opportunity to channel our hopes and fears into a focused vocal message?” she wondered. “As a singer and composer, I’ve made music my whole life, and I know for me that music is the place where emotion meets action.”

Although using music to spark unity and promote social change isn’t new—Woody Guthrie, for one, was famous for his protest songs during the Dust Bowl years—collective singing isn’t as common as it once was. Realizing that the country can no longer be assured of a common repertoire—songs that everyone knows and can sing—Betinis saw the need for a canon of protest and solidarity for times when people gather during important community moments. Inspired by social activist and musician Pete Seeger’s quote: “Get people to sing together, and they’ll act together too,” Betinis and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, director of choral ministries at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, launched the flagship chapter of Justice Choir-Twin Cities. The group now has 16 chapters nationwide—everywhere from Ithaca, New York to San Diego, California.

Kathy Saltzman Romey knows how powerful collective voices can be. Romey is director of choral activities at the University’s Twin Cities campus, where she oversees the graduate program in choral conducting, conducts choirs, and is artistic director of the 200-voice symphonic chorus, The Minnesota Chorale. “I feel that choral music can serve as a means of self-reflection, critical thinking, advocacy, and engagement with the world around us,” Romey says. She also uses a quote from conductor Robert Shaw in her email signature that says in part, “In this time of political, economic, and personal disintegration, music is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”

Betinis agrees. She says Justice Choir leaders in chapter cities are encouraged to “Start Local, Stay Vocal” by remaining aware of what the group’s leaders call “the urgency of current events.” And while those satellite groups are welcome to use songs from the free, downloadable Justice Choir Songbook, they are also encouraged to incorporate music that resonates with their own communities.

The songbook, distributed through a Creative Commons license that is essentially a public copyright, was created after an open call for new songs of struggle, solidarity, justice, equality, peace, and protest. The group received 150 entries from as far afield as England, Germany, Scotland, and Mexico. U of M alumnus Ahmed Fernando Anzaldúa (D.M.A. ’19), a Mexican of Egyptian descent, is a choral conductor, pianist, and teacher in Minneapolis. He stepped in to help with editing, arranging, and contacting those who might have had a copyright claim to one of the songs. “Many of the songs we received were recorded on a cell phone at a protest, so we needed to transcribe them, add musical notations, and include performance instructions,” Anzaldúa says.

The current songbook contains 43 songs, including protest standards like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” and “We Shall Overcome,” as well as 24 songs written specifically for Justice Choir. Anzaldúa’s favorite entry is one he submitted, “¡No Nos Moverán!,” a Spanish language version of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” “I’m an immigrant to this country from Mexico, and my activism is related to the immigrant community,” he says.

As more Justice Choirs continue to establish chapters across the country, this collective protest music is being heard in places and circumstances that surprise even the founders and songbook editors. “I’ve heard these songs performed at a vigil after a police shooting, a singalong event at a bar, a Presbyterian church, a Unitarian Universalist church, elementary school choirs, high school choirs, and at summer camp,” Anzaldúa says.

“Music is a great way to mobilize a community,” concurs Mark Pedelty, professor of communication studies, affiliate professor of anthropology, and fellow at the Institute on the Environment at the U of M. “From large-scale civil rights, human rights, labor, women’s, LGBTQ, and environmental movements to local community organizing, it’s an art that organizes. It can also help us to remember and express what matters most and celebrate that which we aspire to achieve together.”

Julie Kendrick is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis.

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