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Local musicians came together Saturday, June 27, in City Center Park in Aurora for a violin vigil in honor of Elijah McClain. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Songs to sustain a movement

The violin vigil for Elijah McClain brought voices together in a common refrain for justice. Here’s how Denver saxophonist Anisha Rush hears music’s potential to advance social change. PLUS: Protest playlist picks from across decades and genres.

June 29, 2020

By Cory Phare

Elijah McClain played the violin. And on June 27, throngs of musicians from across the state and the nation gathered in Aurora’s City Center Park for a violin vigil to honor the 23-year-old unarmed Black man who died after Aurora police placed him in a chokehold as he was walking home one night last August, the case now garnering national attention.

McClain’s memorialization in song is part of a long tradition of tapping into a moment – or a movement – through music. As a timeless vehicle of connection and resistance, song has the transformative potential to advance social change, said Anisha Rush, a faculty member in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Music.

“There are a lot of avenues music can play a role in right now,” she said. “As artists, we have a responsibility to engage with and reflect the times we live in.”

Rush, an accomplished alto saxophonist, plays alongside fellow MSU Denver musician-in-residence Ron Miles, a Grammy-nominated trumpeter/cornetist who received widespread acclaim for his 2017 release “I Am A Man.” The recording is an account of the Memphis sanitation-worker strike that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the city where he was ultimately assassinated.

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When examining music as force and form, understanding its surrounding environment is key. Rush sees jazz as occupying a unique position to critically examine positions of power and privilege that remains as relevant today as it was decades ago.

“I think it’s interesting when you look at history and where it was birthed out of, a collision of worlds between the Negro spiritual and the marching band, creating this place of ownership for Black people,” she said. “Then early on, you see terms such as ‘Dixieland’ used to define the music, which many consider to be deeply offensive.

Jeff Hughes plays his violin during a peaceful gathering at City Center Park in Aurora for a violin vigil in honor of Elijah McClain. Photo by Sara Hertwig.
Jeff Hughes plays his violin during a peaceful gathering at City Center Park in Aurora for a violin vigil in honor of Elijah McClain. Photo by Sara Hertwig.

“In this way, jazz has been a fight for Black voices and movements throughout history since its inception. You can’t remove it from its context."

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That fight can take many forms, often subtle: Think Charlie “Bird” Parker’s contrafacts, which served as a musical dialogic in response to other contemporary compositions, or the works of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.

“Even if it wasn’t in your face, it was still a form of protest music and a way to reclaim culture,” Rush said.

These foundations paved the way for more contemporary genres, such as hip-hop and lo-fi, she added, noting that artists can use their positionality and platforms to strategically engage in protest explicitly or implicitly.

It can also be a way to engage deeper conversations around ownership and accountability as they relate to consumption.

“We’ve seen Americans want to take Black culture and enjoy it,” Rush said, “but only recently folks are starting to dig into the history more and ask, ‘Who are the people who made this? How have I benefited from that?’”

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Asking those questions is a start to move beyond superficiality to engage more deeply with the art we love and those who create it. In the current context, Rush takes heart in seeing more and more creative people coming together to amplify and sustain those often-overlooked voices with an emerging sense of solidarity.

“I think it’s pretty awesome to see involvement from white musicians speaking up as a way to bring unity in ways we really haven’t seen before,” she said. “Music is a part of everyone’s life. We all listen to it. With that constant presence, artists have a unique position and social responsibility to keep things going.”

Recommended listening from MSU Denver community members

(see below for Spotify playlist)

Anisha Rush, music faculty member

“Don’t Touch My Hair” – Solange

“Black women are one of the most marginalized groups,” Rush said. “This song feels like an anthem to Black women everywhere, praising our unique expression of beauty and confidence.”

“Bag Lady” – Erykah Badu

“Black Kennedy” – August Greene

“Mississippi Goddamn” – Nina Simone

“F.U.B.U.” – Solange

“Hidden Figures” – Logan Richardson

“Ill Relations” – Joel Ross

Ron Miles, musician-in-residence

“19.10” – Childish Gambino

“I’ve probably listened to this over the last few months more than anything else,” Miles said. “As a parent, you want your kids to recognize their life depends on developing strategies to navigate the illogical and that no one can do it for you. The chorus gets to it: ‘To be beautiful is to be hunted/I can’t change the truth; I can’t get you used to this.’”

“I Wish I Knew How I Would Feel to Be Free” – Nina Simone

“Original Faubus Fables” – Charles Mingus

“Zombie” – Fela Kuti

“Bessie’s Last Affair” – Ronald Shannon Jackson

“Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday

“41:19” – Public Enemy

“What Side You On” – Public Enemy

“We Shall Not Be Moved” – Mavis Staples

“Redemption Song” – Bob Marley

Michael Benitez, Ph.D., Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion

“Which Side Are You On?” – Rebel Diaz; Dead Prez

“Civil War” – Immortal Technique

“This Is America” – Childish Gambino

“Fight the Power” – Public Enemy

“Sledgehammer” – Invincible

Devon Wright, Ph.D., Africana Studies assistant professor and jazz guitarist/creator of graphic-novel series “Avant Guardians” (selections off accompanying albums)

From “Through the Mind’s Eye”

“Hybrid Electric”

“The sounds on this song in particular are what inspired the concept for ‘Avant Guardians,’” Wright said. “Musical warriors are in a future where all art is abolished, fighting to liberate humanity through musical combat.”

“Midnight Silhouette”

“Quantum Theory”

“The Anthem”

From “Avant Guardians: The Future of Music, Vol. 1”

“Dystopian Melodicism”

“Chords, Lords and Swords”

“Groovicus Pryme”

“Android Whisperz”

Xan Bennefield, individualized degree program student in marketing and graphic design; social media specialist

“Brown Skin Girls” – Beyonce

“I’m Not Racist” – Joyner Lucas

“Black Women” – Danielle Brooks

“Stand Up” – Cynthia Evrio

“Glory” – John Legend

“Freedom” – Beyonce

Netty Rodriguez, associate director, Gender Institute for Teaching and Advocacy

“Empty” – Kevin Abstract

“This song is a profound look into the high school experience,” Rodriguez said. “In the music video for this song, it’s hard to capture a smile in Kevin Abstract. It’s a heart-wrenching anthem where Kevin Abstract interrogates and dances with all of the curiosity, pain, joy and rejection of being young in a queer Black suburban love story.”

“Rebel Girl” – Bikini Kill

“Testify” – Rage Against the Machine

“CHOTA” – Ozomatli

“Flawless” – Beyonce

“Pynk” – Janelle Monet

“Freedom is Free” – Chicano Batman

“Wrong Way/One Way” – RVIVR

“Paper Planes” – MIA 

Douglas Mpondi, Ph.D., MSU Denver professor and chair, Africana Studies

“Corruption Song” – Thomas Mapfumo (from Zimbabwe)

“Lucky Dube” – Slave (from South Africa)

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