For as long as people have been protesting, they’ve also been singing about it. From Woody Guthrie’s leftist national anthem “This Land is Your Land” to Sam Cooke’s soulful “A Change is Gonna Come,” movement music has fostered hope and brought people together throughout history.
Perhaps no one knows the power of music in organizing better than the Peace Poets, a hip-hop and spoken word collective from Harlem, New York. The group, comprised of Frankie Lopez, Lu Aya, Frantz Jerome, Emmanuel Candelario and Abraham Velasquez, Jr., often refer to themselves as a family. Some of the members have known each other from age 3, while others met in college. Together, they’ve written songs that address social and political crises in over 40 countries. Their songs have been used in the Women’s March, the Standing Rock protests, and most famously, Black Lives Matter protests after the death of Eric Garner. In 2014, their song “I Can’t Breathe” went viral after actor Samuel L. Jackson recorded himself singing the song in solidarity with the protesters.
The Peace Poets cite among their influences Peter Yarrow, Rage Against the Machine, Harry Belefonte and Mercedes Sosa — and in their words, their music “can take you from the Boogie Down to Berlin, from the border to the bodega.” I sat down with two of the Peace Poets, Lu and Frankie, to delve into their roots, the power of music and what they’ve learned from years of organizing.
How did the Peace Poets get started?
Frankie: In 2006, Sean Bell was murdered by police the night before his wedding in New York. There was a group called Mahina Movement that organized an event called “50 Shots, 50 Artists.” They were calling on the New York community to come out and speak their rage, to speak their sadness and to organize. At the event, I shared a poem. Afterwards, the father of a young man named Nicholas Heyward, Jr., who was killed by the NYPD in Brooklyn, came up to me and said, “Hey, can you do that poem at my son’s memorial? I’ve been organizing it for years, and I would love if you could come there.”
From there, we met the whole family, and the Stolen Lives Coalition, which comes together with family members that have also had their loved ones killed by police violence. And we started showing up in the streets with them — not just the memorial, but the rallies and vigils. And then we started writing songs and chants that we could use out on the streets when we gathered.
There were so many intersections, from police violence to mass incarceration to immigrant detention centers. We began building relationships with people in the movement and building community. When you live your life in relationship — that’s when the combination of art and activism becomes the most powerful.
Why do you think music is such a powerful tool when it comes to organizing?
Lu: People know the power of music. There are concerts that fill stadiums. Everywhere you go, people have their radio or their headphones on. The reason why music is so powerful in movements is because when we sing together, we literally get on the same vibration. It’s a physical thing. It’s like an audio hug, or holding each other’s hands, or putting a hand on your shoulder in support. In that way, music is exactly what we need. We all need medicine to heal. We need something to give us courage and make us feel not alone. That’s the power of music — to connect us to our purpose, and our history and our vision.
Your music and poetry has allowed you to connect with communities from around the world, including Harlem, Ferguson, Standing Rock, Guantanamo and the Dominican Republic. What’s one moment that has stood out to you?
Lu: We believe in the power of nonviolent direct action to achieve justice in our society, to break unjust laws and to stop business as usual. So I think one of the most meaningful ways that people have responded to our art is by singing our songs in direct action. The first time that happened was around the housing crisis. We did a song called “Listen Auctioneer.” People all over the country saw a video of us singing to shut down foreclosure auctions. It was like a light went on. If there’s a song that taps into what people feel, a song that they’re gonna wanna sing, then they’re gonna wanna do an action. That’s been the response to songs that resonate with people, and the love, the rage, the joy and the pain that people are feeling in their heart.
Frankie: I think some of the most powerful moments are when young people come up to us and speak about how the message resonates. A lot of people tell us that our music helps them through hard times. I remember actually last year, I was speaking about mental health, and a young woman came up to me crying, saying that she herself had been dealing with depression and she really related to it. That was powerful — but what she also told me was, “I want you to be okay.” I was like, “whoa.” As an artist, it’s one thing to hear, like, “nice poem.” It’s another thing to hear, “Are you okay?” or “I want to check in on you.” That’s one thing that sticks out to me.
Art education is a critical element of what the Peace Poets do. Why is working with youth so important to your group?
Frankie: All five of the Peace Poets are artist educators. We’ve worked everywhere from detention centers to community centers and schools — from as young as third grade, all the way to the university level. Our music has led us into these spaces of education and academia. But we’re also flipping the script on academics, so sessions usually look like a circle where everyone speaks their mind and everyone is teaching each other.
It’s important to say that we came from an organization called the Brotherhood-Sister Sol in Harlem. As teenagers we were part of the lyrical circle. Every Friday we’d get together and share poetry and rap around different focus issues, from Pan-African Latino history to sexism, racism, politics and conflict resolution. One of our members says it best: “I work with youth, because I was a youth that was worked on.”
What’s the most meaningful lesson you’ve learned from creating movement music?
Lu: It’s taught me to be fearless about connecting. To listen. And to let it guide you — to follow the power of the people and the melody of the people.
Frankie: The music is a living thing. When it wants to change, it takes on another form. And it has spread to the people. People have heard songs of ours in a particular way, and then changed the lyrics to suit their community, and that’s so beautiful. That’s one of the best things ever. There’s a song we wrote for the Climate Strike on Wall Street back in 2014. Later, it was changed lyrically and used for the Women’s March in D.C. It went from “the water rising” to “the women rising.” And how beautiful is that? The music is like water. It’s a tool in the hands of the people, and it flows with the people.
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