Be The Change: Music For the Revolution

Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as queer feminists.


If you’ve been to literally any congressional or presidential candidate rally, you’ll notice a guaranteed feature of such political events, a high energy playlist blasting through speakers while the crowd is gathering. It’s a standard strategy to raise the energy at those events, which are often full of cameo appearances by elected officials and point-and-wave speeches and which also rarely start on time.

Music can help set the mood. We all know that. Maybe you create playlists for your long commute. Or use chill study music or ambient noise to help focus when working. Or a dance-able jams list for getting ready for a night out. Perhaps you even :clutches pearls: keep a fresh sex mix for when you’re about to get down with a QT. Do you use music to set the mood at your activist events and gatherings?

Using the perfect playlist at events and actions can be really effective to:

+ Put people at ease and facilitate a friendly social environment.

+ Heighten the group energy level before or during an action.

+ Set the tone and help people understand the “vibe” of an action.

Now, lest you think I’m really getting lazy here, I’m not going to teach you step-by-step how to make a playlist or, uh, how to make music happen. I feel like you probably figured that skill out at this point in life and if you didn’t, well, Google it, friend. I want to focus on tips and topics you might not naturally think of when curating music for an activist action or event. Let’s start with a really important one that I, admittedly, don’t always do the best job at considering when I don’t plan ahead well.


Make Music More Inclusive

Deaf Performance Artist Rosa Lee Timm

First off, whenever considering music as an important aspect of a get-together or event, make sure you’re taking steps to make music as inclusive as possible to everyone, including Deaf people and people who are hard-of-hearing.

This might involve making sure the decibel level of the speaker system you use has enough oomph to give off good vibrations. It could mean making a music video playlist instead of an audio-only playlist or showing the lyrics on-screen concurrently with the playlist.

If you have some funds, consider hiring Deaf ASL song translator for any action or event where live performance (lip sync or vocal) is part of the fun. If you hire Deaf ASL song translators, make sure they have the music and lyrics ahead of time and are stationed in a well-lit area (add lights on them if necessary) and that there is accessible seating reserved where folks can easily see the interpreter and the performance.


Representation Matters

Regardless of the genre or vibe of the playlist you’re making, consider whether you’re actively including a good range of BIPOC artists, trans artists, lesbian and bisexual artists, queer women of color, you know, an actual diversity of artists. If you’re only including Top 40 hits, it may be pretty homogenous and very white, straight, and blah. Also consider deleting any songs by artists who have actively made transphobic, homophobic, racist, or sexist comments. Not from your life if you’re not ready for that because we all have at least ten problematic faves, but from your activist playlist, for sure.


Start With the Goal

OK, this one is very on-brand for me and for this column. What I mean is, a perfect playlist can be both a strategy and a tactic and, as such, should flow from your goal(s)! Is your goal to get people to stop quickly and sign petitions at your table? Definitely go for the pump up music! Is your goal to get people to pause and reflect on your issue introspectively? Go for something instrumental and relaxing with a good beat. (I’m listening to this Aivi and Surasshu playlist right now as I’m writing this that would be perfect for such an ambiance!) Is your goal to get people in your meeting to feel more comfortable relaxing into a retreat? Select music that matches the energy level you want to bring to the start of the day.’


Know the Law

I can’t write about playing music without also writing about the laws and restrictions around the public performance of music. All those presidential candidates with the rally playlist jams, they pay licensing fees to use that music. That’s why artists can’t actually make a politician they disagree with stop using their music and end up just publicly shaming the politician if they’re mad about it.

There are a lot of rules around playing music publicly and, quite frankly, it’s illegal in most cases to play music publicly without a license in any situation unless you’re teaching at a public school, at a nonprofit event that is free to attend, or playing a radio station in a very small business. (This is not legal advice. Please seek actual legal advice from a lawyer if you’re worried about this or think it’d affect you.)

That said, of course, many many many many people do use music and perform music at events and actions without paying the appropriate licensing fees. Definitely weigh what level of risk you’re willing to take, if you’re likely to be caught (camera phones are a thing), and if your use of the music is in any way considered “public.” You can always use music in the public domain for free, but, like, Lizzo definitely isn’t in the public domain. I don’t want to scare you after telling you how great music is, but I’d be slacking on my responsibility to you if I didn’t give you all the deets.


So what are your favorite jams for rallies and marches and activist events? Tell me in the comments!

KaeLyn is a 35-year-old (femme)nist activist, word nerd, and queer mama. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, over-caffeinating herself, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, eating carbs, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. You can buy her debut book, Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution if you want to, if you feel like it, if that's a thing that interests you or whatever.

KaeLyn has written 204 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. The songs that come mind are pretty much the Rage Against the Machine discography. I’ve seen on tv and in person protests where people were holding up their lyrics for example, “you will never silence the voice of the voiceless,” or “Yes, I know my enemies! They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me.” As a kid growing up, I didn’t fully get it, but as an adult it really makes sense.

    Not a protest song, but I think it would a good protest to go to a pro-life/anti-abortion rally and play George Carlin – Abortion from his album Back in Town. First 15 seconds aside, he pretty much calls conservatives racist, anti-women, anti-poor, and not a follower of Christ. The white folks would have to somehow to prove that they aren’t racist, hate women, or poor people.

  2. Kaelyn, all your posts are my favourite, but this one gets bonus points because it inspired me to watch a bunch of music videos and then have a half hour long Lizzo dance party by myself in my grandparents’ living room. Thank you!!!

  3. KaeLyn – Thanks for another great article! I do have a reservation about one part of it: “This might involve making sure the decibel level of the speaker system you use has enough oomph to give off good vibrations.” I love that you’re thinking about including Deaf/hard-of-hearing people, and all your other suggestions in that section sound great. But if the speakers are turned up enough that people can *feel* the vibrations, I see three downsides:

    – Anyone not fluent in sign language (nearly everybody at your event unless it’s specifically Deaf-focused) will have a harder time communicating.
    – In trying to be more inclusive in one direction, you’re going to drive away anyone with noise sensitivity, or make them exhausted and miserable if they can’t leave.
    – Loud noise exposure has a number of serious harmful effects, depending on the exact level and duration and personal sensitivity – temporary or permanent hearing loss, faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, trouble sleeping even after the noise stops, upset stomach, and problems with in utero development. (https://www.asha.org/public/hearing/Noise/ has lots of info. There are also apps that can let your phone measure actual noise levels – dunno how good they are.)

    So big thumbs up in general, maybe also consider sight lines at your venue for those who communicate manually, but please don’t make it any louder than you have to!

  4. A 1973’s Latin American classic, written by Daniel Toro and Ariel Petrocelli, sung by Mercedes Sosa, Cuando Tenga la Tierra (watch out because that part where La Negra is reciting can make you automatically a communist).

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