Sunrise Movement advocates, empowers through protest music

Tufts students protest climate injustice on Dec. 5, 2019. Courtesy Simone Lewis
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“Storms surge and fires burn, but you don’t hear the call / Cause fossil fuels keep paying you, does it weigh on you at all? / Does it weigh on you at all? / Which side are you on now? Which side are you on?” 

In a clever manipulation of Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?(1931), members of the Sunrise Movement a youth-run climate justice movement with a goal to “stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process” — have adapted this American protest anthem to fit their objective of combating climate change. Music occupies a significant role in the young movement, which was founded only three years ago, and acts as a unifying force for its members.

Ella McDonald (LA ‘22), an organizer with Sunrise Tufts, discerned the importance of music in the movement in an email to the Daily.

“Music flows in the veins of the Sunrise Movement, in every stage of the process of movement-building,” McDonald wrote. “Singing is a frequent practice that helps to sustain the movement, create movement culture, and remind the public what we’re fighting for.” 

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With a hub at Tufts and at over 400 other locations nationwide, the Sunrise Movement has asserted itself as a catalyst for a climate revolution and as a strong proponent of the Green New Deal, a resolution championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that aims to temper both environmental degradation and economic inequality. 

According to Amanda Westlake (LA ‘23), one of the hub coordinators at Sunrise Tufts, the Sunrise Movement takes its devotion to both environmental justice and social justice very seriously.

“We recognize that climate change is an intersectional issue,” Westlake said. “People in low income communities are the most impacted by the negative effects of climate change.” 

As a means to build community and promote the movement’s positions, Sunrise has adopted the habit of singing: a practice that, while temporarily put on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions, has had a profound effect on the community and the empowerment of its members — musicians and nonmusicians alike.

You don’t have to be a music expert to know about music in Sunrise,” Westlake said. “It’s not about having an amazing voice or knowing a lot of different songs.”

According to McDonald, hub meetings almost always begin in song.

“Music can serve a powerful function in meetings to make the space feel more intimate, to get people energized and refocused, even just to call people’s attention back to the front of the room,” McDonald wrote. “The act of group singing … create[s] a powerful sense of solidarity.” In addition to music in hub meetings, Sunrise activists often erupt into song during protests, such as during the climate strikes of 2019. According to McDonald and Westlake, being surrounded by music at these events is an incredibly empowering experience.

“During the climate strike in September [2019], one of the things that I remember the most, and that stands out the most, is the singing that happened. It really created an environment of hope, and was a way to express the feelings that we were all feeling,” Westlake said. “All these songs have so much power to move people and so much power [to] impact the way somebody feels, or to share somebody’s story, or to feel in unison with each other and to feel that sense of community and togetherness.”

McDonald, a double major in sociology and music, sound and culture, has held the role of “song leader” for Sunrise Tufts.

This entails teaching and leading activists in singing songs at poignant moments throughout protests,” she said. “Some of these moments are choreographed: someone will give a speech exposing a politician for the amount of the money they take from fossil fuel executives, and I’ll lead the group in singing ‘Which Side Are You On?’”

Musical activism is by no means unique to the Sunrise Movement; protest and political music has held a place in the United States since the American Revolution. Notably reaching extreme popularity and influence during the 1960s and 1970s, protest music was often written in response to social and racial injustices, or to support political views held by certain groups, such as the anti-war movement. Songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964), Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” (1971) and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964) were all extremely influential during the 60s and 70s, and they continue to have an impact on political and social movements. 

“A lot of the songs are historical protest songs borrowed from the civil rights movement and Indigenous people who have protested. A lot are from the 60s anti-war protests,” Westlake said. “We try to also find out the meaning and the history behind songs before we share them, so we know what we’re singing. We don’t want to appropriate any songs — we want to only use the ones that are appropriate for us to sing.” 

Both Westlake and McDonald are ardent climate activists on their own who have stepped up to lead and inspire others both within and outside of this movement. Perhaps the movement’s use of music contributed to its empowerment and impact. In reference to the protest music of the 1960s and 1970s, McDonald said, “Even when the movement ends, it can live on through music.”

The Sunrise Movement is certainly still in its infancy, so it will not be going anywhere anytime soon, but the impact that it is making on the world of music and activism will extend far into the future.

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