By Shilpa

On a Tuesday night two weeks ago, singers at the regular My Heart Sings women’s workshop in London broke out into a spontaneous burst of song. This happens every so often and S Club 7 or Nina Simone songs are usually culprit. This time, one of the elders of the group started singing:

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons

The line is from Ella’s Song, by the legendary singing and activist group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Everyone in the room joined in for the refrain:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes


Why did this song bubble up? Everyone was moving chairs and clearing away tea cups, about to go home after singing together. Some in the group had been discussing an upcoming London vigil in solidarity with Black communities in Ferguson, USA. It had just been announced there that the death of the young, Black, unarmed Mike Brown at the hands of a White and armed policeman was not going lead to a process of accountability and justice. The murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice by another White police officer in Cleveland has also recently happened.

When we met the following Tuesday night, some singers were planning to go along to support a protest at Westfield shopping centre. This ‘Die-In’ protest was called by London Black Revs and others in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner in New York. Eric was strangled to death by a White police officer. The protest was well-attended and powerful, interrupting late-night shopping and traffic on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. It was led by mostly young and women activists, many of whom were arrested despite the non-violent nature of the protest. I also recognised a number of people who have been campaigning against institutional racism in the UK police and justice systems, often after losing a loved one to racist police violence. Protestors of different ages and racial heritage used their voices to loudly sing and shout chants together: ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘No Justice No Peace’.

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Using our voices in chanting and song can help get our message across. It helps to convey anger, passion and demands for social change. Song is also helpful for processing our own emotional whirlwinds and building a sense of solidarity between people. It can help tell stories of those before us, whose work can give us strength, wisdom and inspiration.

baker-nbcElla Jo Baker, Press conference, 1960

Ella’s Song, written in 1988, is about Ella Baker, a central activist and community organiser in the movement for Civil Rights. When outsiders think of the Civil Rights struggle, we usually think of iconic moments: Martin Luther King Jnr saying ‘I Have A Dream’ and Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus. Ella’s contribution is often unsung – a lot of her work was behind the scenes. She brought ‘ordinary people’ together, building skills, confidence and leadership within hundreds of communities. Her work contributed to sit-ins, to mass voter registration, to huge, democratically-run conferences (which often featured powerful songs). Though she was great at delivering rousing speeches on a podium, the genius of her community organising approach was to build relationships and trust between people and support them to take action together to challenge segregation laws.

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

Ella was known to say ‘Strong people don’t need strong leaders’. She was well-respected and looked up to by people she worked with, but her focus was on developing the potential within people to create change for themselves. In her seventies, she was given the fond title of “Fundi,” a Swahili word meaning a person who learns a craft and teaches it to the next generation.

And that which touches we most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

Ella worked particularly with students. She spoke of the need to reflect and understand the past, but she felt that the future lay in the activism of young people. In the current wave of activism in response to racist police brutality, we are seeing the leadership of young people in the UK and across the world.

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

There was sometimes friction between Ella and other leaders in the civil rights organisations she worked with, particularly men. She recognised the need to address wider issues linked to race-based discrimination (eg. income, education, housing and health inequalities), not creating a single-issue silo. Ella was committed to unlocking the ‘group-centred leadership’ of communities she organised. She disagreed with the some of the methods of Martin Luther King Jnr who preferred working in hierarchies and top-down ‘charismatic’ leadership. She said ‘We cannot lead a struggle that involves masses of people without identifying with the people and without getting the people to understand what their potentials are, what their strengths are’ (source for this paragraph: Freedom Bound, Grant, 1998).

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

Black women are taking leadership roles in organising many of the current anti-racist protests all over the world. Some people have pointed out that the death of Black women at the hands of police must be highlighted alongside the more high profile cases involving men.

Ella’s methods are still relevant – perhaps even more than ever – to anti-racist organising in the US, and in the UK and globally and to all social justice issues. This kind of radical community empowerment work is still usually not given the airtime and resources it needs – it is considered slow, unpredictable, not easily packageable into ‘quick wins’ by people in positions of power.

Ella’s Song is a beautiful vehicle for people to learn about Ella’s contribution. For me, it opened up curiosity and learning about Ella and other radical social change leaders across the world. I worked to actively learn more about Black Feminism and the racism faced by Black people across the world, which is often very different to what I have experienced, as a woman with Indian heritage in the UK.

Ella’s values and successes give me more confidence in my participatory methods as an activist, trainer and song-leader working alongside communities who are leading the way to change the oppressive systems they are part of. When I share the song with other community activists, it often it helps them to see their own methods of creating social change in a new light. I first introduced the song to My Heart Sings in a workshop for women of colour, where we discussed overcoming racism and how we make our workshops inclusive for women of all backgrounds. I’ve sung it with other groups since. We take turns to sing the verses in pairs and usually repeat the refrain all together.

Songs of freedom like this have also become woven into the story of my own personal struggle against day to day oppression. At challenging moments – facing up to sexist or racist or overly hierarchical thinking, a line often goes through my mind and I feel a little bit calmer and stronger. I’m very grateful to Ella and Sweet Honey for Ella’s song. What a gift this is – a supportive and uplifting moment, offered from women of a different generation and hundreds of miles away.

Sweet Honey in the Rock have just released a beautiful and piercing version of Silent Night for the festive season.

The lyrics for Ella’s song, interspersed throughout this blog in italics are made up of Ella’s own words. The song is written by Bernice Johnson Reagon and copyrighted to Songtalk Publishing Co.

This blog is dedicated to Susi Miller, a true Fundi for community development learning in the UK.