Whether you’re a full time Stupol hack or you’re just trying to have some quiet study time in Fisher library, you may have heard Social Justice Warriors TM protesting on campus at some point. Despite the negative reputation of these Jobless Latte-Sipping Lefties®, they’re also responsible for some musical compositions that would have made Mozart proud.
The fine art of the protest chant is criminally underrated, but is a truly beautiful rhythmic expression. That’s why this music nerd is here to give some insight into the skills of chant composition and performance!
First thing’s first: finding the beat! The big 2/4 at the start of the notation lets us know that this song has 2 (hence the 2) full beats (hence the 4-why 4? don’t ask), which is a marching rhythm. Lots of protest chants use 2/4 because marching is the only exercise that Inner-West vegans get.
Protest chants are deceptively simple, but the best ones have a healthy dose of what us musos call “syncopation”: that is, rhythms which regularly fall on off-beats in between the “1, 2, 1, 2”.
Our key example of a protest chant is the classic “Stand Up! Fight Back!” which has a long history originating in the labour movement and diversifying into other issues. It goes as follows:
“When worker’s rights are under attack Whadda we do?! STAND UP FIGHT BACK!”
One of the great things about it is that it can be applied to any good cause! So, what about student’s rights? “STAND UP FIGHT BACK!” And if Cate Blanchett is under attack, what do we do? “STAND UP FIGHT BACK!” Video Ezy? “STAND UP FIGHT BACK!” Shannon Noll? “STAND UP FIGHT BACK!”
Rhythmically, there is more to this chant than meets the eye.
Some of the accented beats (work, rights, are, at-tack) fall on suspiciously similar beats to known SJW George Michael’s “Faith”. More importantly though, it pulls a lot of classic protest chant moves that make it a good exemplar for how important the rhythm is to the delivery of a chant.
Firstly, this chant is a call-and-response, where the leader (megaphone-holder/loud person) says part of the chant and the rally responds with the chant title. The only thing unusual about this chant is that most of it is spoken by the leader, but that makes it an even more accessible learning tool. Sometimes there’s tension between rival lead chanters, who quickly change the ‘call’ portion from solo to polyphonic tutti.
The call-and-response allows both the leader and the rally time to breathe in between their share of yelling, which helps maintain stamina whilst also deflecting conservative commentators’ arguments that protesters are “a waste of air”.
Another classic student protest chant move is what musical puritans call an anacrusis, or less pretentiously, a lead-in. What this means is that the first word of the chant, “when”, falls before the first beat rather than on it. This allows the first beat to accentuate the more crucial syllable of “work” which helps drive home the message.
Importantly, it also plays a practical function in chant delivery by allowing the chant leader greater control over the tempo (pace). “But that’s anti-socialist/anarchist/democratic/fun!”, the protesters can be heard saying. Megaphone collectivisation and skill-sharing is recommended to mitigate this necessary evil.
Chant leaders should take note not to begin chants too fast or to get faster and faster until the rally gets so incoherent that the mounted police (Get those animals / Off those horses!) start leading the chant out of pure frustration.
Finally, how do chants end? The answer is often a bit like free jazz: improvisational and comedic. Listen out for your fellow musicians, especially the one person who goes in for another round of the chant but ends up in an awkward solo, giving up after “when workers…” Like this article, chants will fizzle out unspectacularly, but the key is to have another one ready to go!
Hopefully the beautiful person reading this has learnt something about either music or student activism. But everyone knows that protest chants are better live than on the record.