A black and white photograph of Black Lives Matter protests taken from a bird's eye view, with a red anatomical drawing of a human heart superimposed over top.

Protest Chants as a Collective Musical Habit

By: Spencer Bridgman | Art by: Spencer Bridgman

At the height of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, phrases like “He leaves, we stay!” were hot on the lips of hundreds of thousands protesting the Hosni Mubarak government. As revolutionaries were chanting those lines in Tahrir Square, Ramy Essam, a musician and activist born two-and-a-half-hours north of Cairo in Mansoura, took notice and sought to give them a signal boost in the form of a song. The resulting “Irhal (Leave)” incorporated several protest slogans, including the above line. As Essam himself explained in an interview with The Guardian for the podcast Reverberate, he was simply a conduit for the chants of the Egyptian people. The young revolutionary artist was one of the many who had taken to the streets to topple the Mubarak government. 

When people are united under a common purpose it is only natural that their unity is expressed through a common voice. Where there are collectives, there are often chants— whether at a protest, a concert, or a soccer game. Groups of people who identify as a whole strengthen that identity through chants. When you attend a protest, it’s not a question concerning if there will be chants, but when. The ubiquity of chants at protests makes them a habit of protest culture. Speaking to trade union organizers, to anti-imperialist feminists, and those fighting for migrant rights, it’s clear that protest chants are central to these movements across so-called Canada. 

The issues that brought the protestors together in Egypt were numerous: police brutality, corruption, and food prices were on the rise; meanwhile, civil liberties, employment, and wages were declining. Day after day, Ramy and his comrades shouted in the streets in unison: “he leaves, we stay!” The message was clear, they demanded the removal of the authoritarian and corrupt President Mubarak and for him to be replaced with a government of the people. 

A Musical Habit

The chants that permeated the 2011 Egyptian Revolution were seamlessly adapted into lyrics because they already had a rhythm to them. This nature is true of all good protest chants: they have a rhythm that goes hand in hand with the pumping of a fist or the pounding of a drum. The chants that would eventually become lines in Essam’s song emerged through the repeated coming together of a group of people under a common purpose. For weeks, the people showed up and chanted the same words together with the aim of overturning the government, establishing a habit through repetition. 

As the protests continued accumulating strength, Essam brought his guitar to Tahrir Square and sang his most recent creation: a simple song composed of the people’s chants set to a few chords. Essam remembers on Reverberate how “immediately when I started to sing ‘Irhal,’ people knew the song. The words [were] coming from the chants, coming from them … I saw everyone as one human being, as one sound, singing together.” Ten days later, President Mubarak resigned and “Irhal” was known around the world as the anthem of the revolution. 

A Choir of Comrades

Lisa Descary is a community and trade union activist based in Vancouver. Descary has been active in a number of organizing spaces over the years, including as a former member of the Left Coast Labour Choir. Founded just under a decade ago, the choir started with the goal of using the power of song to build solidarity across the labour movement.

One technique that’s used often by the Left Coast Labour Choir is the “zipper song.” As Descary explains, a zipper song is when “you take a well known song and zip out the old words and zip in the new.” Take “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. Descary and her choir comrades were attending a demonstration to fight for a $15 minimum wage, so they changed the chorus from “Because you’re mine, I walk the line” to “‘Til 15’s mine, we’ll hold the line.” This was one of their most popular zipper songs— folks already knew the melody and the new words were easy to learn. This technique is the inverse of what Essam did with “Irhal,” taking words the people already knew and adding on the melody. 

The power of chants comes from their ability to spread across time, space, and movements. A great example of this is how the Black Lives Matter 2020 chant “Get your knee off our necks!” was then adapted during the #ShutDownCanada actions later that year to: “Who do you serve? Who do you protect? Get your boots off native necks!” The chant spread because the activists were connected through the shared struggle of fighting police violence against Black and Indigenous bodies. 

A universal Language

Bennie-Tamara is a Montréal community-based activist who often works with progressive feminist organizations struggling against imperialism and capitalism. Politically inclined from a young age, Bennie-Tamara has developed her social awareness over the years through learning theory as a political science and history major and through conversations with friends and family in Canada and throughout Latin America. Speaking Spanish, French, and English has made Bennie-Tamara a sought after chant-leader at protests like the International Women’s Day march. One thing she’s noticed is that, “the varying degrees of fluency for any language seemingly disappear when chanting— like music, it’s a universal language. The words flow naturally to the chorus of the crowd and carry a message far too powerful to be subdued by linguistic barriers alone.” 

Bennie-Tamara remembers the feeling of connectivity not only with her fellow marchers, but also with those protesting at Women’s Day marches around the world: “It is surreal to turn around and feel like the world is behind you. A sense of transnational comradery settles in and fuels the protest. In that moment, we are connected, voices from all over the world joining together for a collective cause.” As Bennie-Tamara and her comrades chanted in Montréal, she knew that their voices were in harmony with people chanting in the universal language of solidarity across the globe. 

Chanting also connects to generations past. A strong advocate for socialism in his home country of Ecuador, Bennie-Tamara pictures her grandfather “humming his own chants under his breath, careful not to alert the authorities.” 

“Every time I have the opportunity to chant the words that those before me had to bite down on their tongues to stop from spilling out, I take it.” 

an inhabited Habit

Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has been active in various forms for over a decade, fighting to win fairness for migrant communities in Ontario and in every corner of the country. 

In February, MWAC organizer Sarom Rho and her comrades created a new chant at the Beat the Bosses Bootcamp— a three day conference where organizers from across Ontario came together to collaborate and strategize on how to win real gains for workers.The chant they created, which they’ve since taken to the streets, is: “United, we fight! When we fight, we win!” Rho describes it as having a few different parts. The first word, “united,” is elongated, gathering people together as they stretch out the word in unison. Its call is answered and rounded off with a statement: “we fight.” Shouted in quick succession, the three short syllables that commence the back half of the chant (“When we fight”) offer a sharp jab after the previous line. They are powerful, striking down oppression with precision. The last two words of the chant provide a resolution. They are an exhalation, a relief that justice has been advanced if not yet fully achieved. 

Incorporating these different phrases was essential to the creation of the chant. “More than anything, a chant has to move you,” Rho explains. “It has to have a rhythm to it that you feel in your body. It has to have a heartbeat.” Chants are “not only a habit, they’re inhabited.” Giving a chant a rhythm that you feel in your body enables it to stay with you long after the action is over. Your body remembers it. A line seeps into your being, and you find yourself repeating it unconsciously on the way home from the demonstration, or at the next. 

Comparing a protest chant to a heartbeat is an apt summation— what is more habitual than the unconscious repetition of blood pumping through our body? What is more musical than our body keeping rhythm as we move through our lives? What is more collective than our hearts beating together as we take to the streets to build a better world?

This story has since been republished by our friends at spring magazine, a magazine of socialist ideas in action. You can find that version, here.