Repertoire for a Cause: The Justice Choir Songbook

This article is part of a series highlighting new choral repertoire that can be used by a wide range of choirs to address different community issues.

Abbie Betinis and Andrea Ramsey were in different parts of the country, but asking themselves the same question: As protests and demonstrations surrounding social justice issues were springing up around the U.S. within the last year, why weren’t more people singing at these events?

As fellow composers, the two also shared an additional question: What role do I have to play here as an artist? After seeing each other’s Facebook posts on the subject, the two began to talk about how to get involved. Says Betinis, “I saw that Andrea had gotten a lot of great ideas for new repertoire. We started to scheme about what a songbook might look like, and thought that maybe that could be our contribution to this.” Adds Ramsey, "Together we saw the need for a framework to introduce modern repertoire that serves this new world we are in.”

When Betinis and Ramsey shared their plans for creating a songbook, they immediately heard from choral director Tesfa Wondemagneghu. Wondemagneghu was in the beginning stages of forming a justice-oriented community choir and was already in search of the same kind of repertoire. “We compared notes and tried to clarify the vision of how these two needs could work together,” says Betinis. That was the beginning of Justice Choir.

Creating Shared Repertoire

The idea for a songbook was borne out of a sense that there is no longer a canon of songs that is widely known to the public.

Justice Choir Sheet Music

In advance of the Justice Choir Songbook's official release, the organizers have been releasing several PDFs. Here are just a few:
"Courage to Be Who We Are" - Ruth Huber
"Ana El Na" - Karen Siegel"
"Liberty and Justice for All" - Brandon Williams
"This Is What Democracy Looks Like" -
Elizabeth Alexander

“I notice that when people get together at any kind of event—whether it be around a campfire or at a protest—everyone is thinking ‘Let's sing something,’ but there is a lack of shared repertoire,” says Ahmed Anzaldúa, a conductor who became one of the songbook’s co-editors. “I don't think this generation or the one before it has had the same kind of knowledge of songs for justice that might have been found 40 or 60 years ago.”

The conditions seemed right for an infusion of fresh perspectives. “I was hoping we would hit on what the new sound for protest music is,” says Betinis. “And not just contemporary protest music—but contemporary protest music for group singing, which is a specific art form that has its unique needs to be successful.”

Within a couple weeks of issuing the official call for scores, Betinis, Ramsey, and Wondemagneghu received 143 scores from several countries and in different languages. Then began the process of narrowing down the submissions to the 43 songs that will appear in the collection. Betinis organized a few casual gatherings to sing through the songs and began to test them out. One such gathering is how Betinis was introduced to Anzaldúa.

The spectrum of composer voices represented in the songbook includes a wide range of languages, origins, issues, styles, and ages, which spans from mid-20s to 75 years old. “There are at least few songs in there that are not going to sound like songs you already know,” says Betinis.

Flexibility and Inclusivity

When curating the final selections, two criteria rose to the top for the co-editors above the rest: flexibility and inclusivity.

“It was important for us to design the songbook for singers of all different capabilities and backgrounds,” says Betinis.The songs are singable by any age. There's always an option for a higher voice—for example, a child—to lead, or lower voices, too.”

How To Get Involved With Justice Choir

1. Read the guide. The new Justice Choir guide is a comprehensive resource of all the ways you can participate in the effort
2. Start or join a chapter. Chapters have already formed in the Twin Cities, Detroit, Ithaca, Raleigh, San Diego, and Port Townsend, WA. Or form a new chapter in your area!
3. Use the music. The full Songbook will be released soon. Follow Justice Choir on Facebook to find sheet music for several songs that have already been shared.
Visit the Justice Choir website for more information.

Adds Anzaldúa, The songs we chose lent themselves well to inserting new lyrics, and to being sung by large or small groups.” The songs also work in a variety of settings. “I can take them to a classroom, or a march, or a protest, or I can teach the songs to my kids at home. I love the flexibility of it.”

While diversity and inclusion were in the forefront of the editors’ minds, they were practical about what a collection of just 43 songs could accomplish. Says Betinis, “There's no way to cover every issue or tradition; however, wherever you are in your life or worldview, you are able to come into the songbook and feel welcomed. Rather than think about this as an all-inclusive songbook, we tried to adjudicate so that it was not exclusive.

“A song came in with the word ‘citizen’ in it. The line was ‘let all the citizens sing,’ or something like that. I thought it was great, until Ahmed said, ‘I'm not a citizen here, and I want to sing.’ It sounds terrible to say out loud, but I didn't even realize how that language could be exclusionary.”

Logistical Considerations

It wasn’t enough to just create a collection of new repertoire—the songbook needed to be practical and legal to distribute for both its creators and its users. “We didn't want there to be any barriers to singing,” says Betinis.

Betinis worked with Creative Commons, an organization that “helps creators disentangle various copyrights that usually come bundled.” The songwriters were able to retain the copyright for their work, while distribution was licensed to the public for free by using Creative Commons’ BY-NC-ND license. Explains Betinis, “It's legal to download and share the PDF sheet music—print it, photocopy it—as long as you always have the songwriter’s name on it, and you're not selling it.”

Going a step further, it is expected that each crowd that gathers to sing may want to adapt these songs slightly differently to make them their own. “We've done all we can so that the next person in this link on the chain feels empowered to bring their own creativity to the process. These are meant to be grown into what people need at any given moment,” Betinis says. “We wanted to keep that chain of generosity going through the whole pipeline. That's a huge part of building empathy and the tools of cooperation.”

Dialogue and the Role of Chapters

The vision of the Justice Choir project is twofold: in addition to distributing the songbook, the project aims to encourages the formation of local chapters to sing in response to current events anywhere a marginalized group of people needs a bigger voice. “The songbook doesn't exist in isolation,” says Anzaldúa. “There's a real effort to connect it to a movement of groups around the country that will use it for their own purposes.”

Tesfa Justice Choir Twin Cities launchTesfa Wondemagneghu at the Justice Choir-Twin Cities launch at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The flagship chapter is Justice Choir-Twin Cities—the choir that Wondemagneghu had been forming when he joined forces with Betinis and Ramsey. With the support of his Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has sponsored the creation of the songbook and the formation of the chapter, he has already demonstrated the ways in which individual chapters can take a unique approach to bringing the songbook’s contents to life.

“For me, the most important part of this idea is the dialogue,” says Wondemagegnehu. “I want you to make a transfer—from this piece of music that you just sang to your life—and how you plan to be part of the solution.”

 “The most powerful thing about this book is that it creates these moments of empathy and reflection,” says Anzaldúa. Adds Betinis, “When you're singing a piece of music, it changes your point of view in such a profound way to have someone else's words in your mouth.”

For Wondemagegnehu, his efforts to inspire his community to action through singing have been enhanced by the repertoire. “With the songbook, we are able to speak to so many different angles of justice. Eco-justice, women's rights, voting rights—it’s a spectacular document.”

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.