Carried by Song and Community
(Note from Eveline MacDougall, Founder and Director of Amandla and Fiery Hope choruses: A version of this essay was published in The People’s Voice of Franklin County, Winter 2003–2004, in an issue devoted to the theme Living in Your Strength and Joy, Rather than Fear and Despair. The origin story of our chorus is shared more fully in my book, Fiery Hope: Building community with the Amandla Chorus, released in 2020 by Haley’s Publishing. Our chorus began as “Amandla” in 1988, and changed our name to “Fiery Hope” in 2019.)
I was raised in a musical family. The house I grew up in was also filled with passionate philosophies about justice and human rights.
But for me, music and activism didn’t really come together until I was 23, when the Amandla Chorus came into existence, largely by happenstance, and I began to see that my music and my activism didn’t have to live separate lives.
I learned South African freedom songs while living at Noonday Farm in Winchendon, Massachusetts, an intentional community. Soon after, I moved to Greenfield, Mass, and my friend, Rosie Heidkamp—who’d spent part of her childhood in South Africa—heard me sing one of the songs and suggested we host a session to teach South African freedom songs to members of the community. Forty people showed up and couldn’t stop singing the compelling, uplifting songs. On that day in January of 1988, Amandla was born.
Singing on a regular basis with people I care about gives me strength. I refuse to believe that humans are meant to bomb and brutalize one another. Singing songs of justice helps me debunk the myth that money is a god and profit is the only goal. The messages of Madison Avenue and Hollywood—that women are window dressing and men are destined to be violent—bounce off me because I am inoculated by the deep experience of singing from the heart. Every cell in me resonates as the songs lift me to a better place.
Over the years, the group’s personnel has changed and our repertoire has expanded to include songs of peace and justice from around the world. In my idealistic youth, I had visions of Amandla changing the world with our songs. Now (in my idealistic middle age) I have visions and the experience of Amandla singers changing ourselves. I’ve let go of an obsession about “saving the world”—whatever that means. But I haven’t lost hope; I just come at it from a different angle. I think the real “world-changing” begins when the Amandla Chorus becomes community. Not only when we work to sing at the same tempo and resist going flat, but also when we share each other's joys and sorrows. Amandla (as with any group) is made up of people. The realities of life mean that people’s family members die, marriages sometimes fall apart, illnesses happen—but there’s also so much joy.
I’m happy when Amandla has an impact on an audience. If, by some chance, we “save the world” with our songs, I’ll take it! But as Wally and Juanita Nelson taught me early in my life, change begins with the individual or it’s all a bunch of hot air.
I can say for certain that my involvement with Amandla has changed me. It’s made me less pessimistic, more able to grieve and enjoy, and more compassionate. It’s given me community in the truest sense and restored a sense of “tribe” or “village” in a culture that’s programmed to strip us of connection so we’ll feel insecure and like we have no choice but to purchase more stuff.
Singing with Amandla makes me more human; I see the same thing happen with others. The music carries us, and we learn to carry ourselves and, when needed, each other.
And as the songs lead us into prisons and schools, concert halls and homeless shelters, nursing homes and houses of worship, rallies, funerals, and to the bedsides of the dying...I know I have taken the musical gifts my parents gave me, and made them my own. I am no longer the isolated four-year-old, itchy in my fancy recital dress and fixated on getting every note right. Through the love of my community, I’ve discovered the relationship between art and activism.
I like this a lot better.