After months of stalling negotiations, the California Faculty Association began a series of one-day, localized strikes at Cal Poly Pomona, making Monday, December 4, 2023, one of the most hectic days of the fall 2023 semester.
But among the ambient noise of the crowd and speakers, one noise cut through to take the center of attention the Mariachi Los Broncos de Pomona performed a brief set of mariachi standards and protest songs.
The performance from the mariachi ensemble was far from the only example of music at the one-day strike. Throughout the demonstration, picketers shouted “What do we want? Fair pay! / When do we want it? Now!” and other call and response chants in unison. Some sounded off with trumpets, drums and horns as they lined up along Kellogg Drive. A DJ played a wide variety of music ranging from The Beatles to Pop Smoke and Daft Punk to Death Grips. In fact, the nearly 10-hour demonstration was rarely quiet as music permeated through the whole event.
Throughout nearly every social movement in history, music has played an integral role in public demonstrations, most predominantly through chants.
The origins of famous chants vary wildly. For example, the infamous rallying cry “No justice, no peace,” which has been used in protests against police brutality and hate crimes toward Black Americans for decades. This was coined by a demonstrator at the 1986 protests following the killing of Michael Griffith in New York City and later popularized in part by civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who organized the protests.
Regardless of their origins, chants remain a staple of public demonstrations due to its ability to unify like-minded people.
“The chants we’ve been doing, they’re in a certain rhythm, and people even try to match the pitch of the person leading the chant,” said Jessie Vallejo, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at CPP and the director of the university’s mariachi ensembles. “I think that really allows people to come together and feel like a part of something so much larger is absolutely critical to helping create solidarity.”
Much of the power of chants, and the primary reason they are present at nearly every protest, is their accessibility. The most famous chants are often concise and straightforward, allowing almost anyone to contribute to the movement.
“In any major protest you can think of, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, music is at its core,” said Ernest Harrison, assistant professor of music at CPP. “One of the main reasons for that is that music unifies us across race, across ethnicity and across generational gaps. It brings people together. It is that singular artistic expression for which everyone can participate, regardless of skill or training.”
Alongside chants, protest songs are another staple of public demonstrations that can unify crowds. Harrison noted Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” as two major examples of protest songs from the civil rights movement.
Even songs not written specifically about social movements like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” are often co-opted by activists due to their ability to galvanize crowds. And while the lyrics of protest songs sometimes do not themselves turn into chants, they still serve as a rallying cry and soundtrack to social movements and can double as cultural touching stones that can further energize protesters.
“Almost always at the root of any protest, you’re going to find the folk music of whatever culture is protesting,” Harrison said.
Harrison cited the soul music of Marvin Gaye and the music of hip hop pioneers such as Public Enemy and N.W.A as examples of music that reflected the culture and traditions of Black Americans while calling to attention the injustice their communities faced.
For Vallejo, the presence of the mariachi ensemble and the performance of songs like “De Colores,” which was famously used as by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta as an anthem for the United Farm Workers strikes of the 60s, provided the CFA strike a new level of community awareness given the diverse nature of the CPP community, which is nearly one-half Hispanic or Latino.
“It was really for the CSU system to understand that those are the cultures that it’s supposed to represent,” said Jimin Broussard, a music student at CPP, regarding the mariachi ensemble’s presence at the CFA strike.
This power to unite and galvanize like-minded people is why music is ever present at strikes, protests and other public demonstrations, and for many organizers and activists, music is essential to a movement’s ability to gain the support of the people.
“If you see a protest happening in a piece of artwork and you see struggle portrayed in that piece of art, you don’t really have to explain it in legislative terms or anything,” Broussard said. “You can look at that struggle and you can identify with it, and you can also attach it to your own personal experiences. I think that’s what makes music — and not just music but performing arts and visual arts in general — super impactful and helpful for people to understand the nature of these movements.”
Feature image and photo credit: Charlize Althea Garcia