Choral music as social and environmental justice activism

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Choral music as social and environmental justice activism. Image: Used with permission of the Resistance Rising Choir.

Rama DelaRosa has been a musician and an activist for many years. She lives on Salt Spring Island, just off Vancouver Island, and she is the director of the Resistance Rising Choir, based in Victoria. Scott Neigh interviews her about music, about movements and about what Resistance Rising brings to struggles for social change.

DelaRosa's first experience of musical performance was in a church choir at six years old. Through the rest of her youth she was immersed in music at church and at school, and she continued her choral education in college. For eight years after she graduated, she made a living as a travelling musician.

Her earliest involvement in struggles for justice was as part of the continent-wide campaign in solidarity with migrant farm workers in Florida. She was later involved in anti-war activism in North Carolina and in campaigns against mountaintop removal coal mining. More recently, along with participating when she can in actions in Victoria, she has done things like raised money for Indigenous and environmental justice struggles via fundraising swims around Salt Spring Island. As someone who is multi-racial and queer, she sees helping to build bridges of understanding and solidarity as an important part of the work she is called to do.

At a certain point, DelaRosa decided that she needed to shift the focus of her passion for music. It was no longer enough just to entertain people -- she wanted to use music as a medium to uplift, to educate and to inspire people to action. Music, she believes, has a special power to open us up and to break down barriers, and therefore it is an important tool for communicating the values and ideas of justice-oriented movements to broader audiences.

For a while, she facilitated a women's song circle and then a choir on Salt Spring Island. As much as she enjoyed that, though, she decided that the kind of project that she was most interested in was something best accomplished not in the relatively small community of the island but in a bigger city.

In the wake of successful workshops at a music festival and at the anarchist book fair in Victoria, she put out a call for people who might be interested in getting involved in an ongoing choral activism project. She got a good response, mostly from people already engaged in grassroots political work of one kind or another, and the Resistance Rising Choir began to take shape.

The choir has completed two successful seasons so far. They start each September, rehearsing regularly in a community centre in the Victoria community of James Bay. They take a few months at the beginning to get some repertoire ready, and then they put the word out to activist networks in the area that they are available to perform. In the last two years, this has include performing at a fundraiser for the Salish Sea Defence Fund, an International AIDS Awareness Day event, a road blockade in solidarity with the Unit'ot'en camp and the Wet'suwet'en people, an action promoting divestment from fossil fuel industries, and lots of others. And they finish each season with a formal concert, which they use to raise money to support some sort of local or regional struggle for justice.

And to be clear, while the politics are important for the folks in Resistance Rising, so is the music. They don't just sing powerful original songs and updated movement standards -- they do it well, and in six or eight part harmony.

The choir is looking forward to performing at a couple of music festivals over the summer and to the start of their third season in September. DelaRosa hopes they can recruit a few new members too -- she's looking to get the choir up to about 50 people, and she is especially looking for more tenor, baritone and bass voices. And once the choir has another couple of years under their belts -- well, who knows. DelaRosa says that members have already floated the idea of somehow taking the choir on the road. In the meantime, she is excited to see how the choir continues to grow and develop in its use of music as a way to contribute to movements for environmental and social justice.

Image: Used with permission of the Resistance Rising Choir.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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