Meizel helps young people raise their voice against gun violence

katherine-Meizel

By Bonnie Blankinship

Last weekend in San Francisco at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the performers included young people singing their original songs about the impact of gun violence and the desperate need for a change.

Their songs and others’ are part of a new album called “Raise Your Voice: The Sound of Student Protest.” The 11 tracks came from students across the United States, performing as soloists or in groups, from hip-hop to rock to spoken word to voice and piano. They are united in their insistence that gun violence has to stop.

The impetus for the album came from Dr. Katherine Meizel, an associate professor of musicology in the College of Musical Arts. With the help of the Little Village Foundation, she found a way to preserve those voices and share the students’ message.

“The project has two goals: to encourage young people to vote and to raise money for gun safety,” Meizel said.

Proceeds from the album will be donated to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety organization, which works to end gun violence, create safer communities and assist victims of gun violence. The album is available for download and streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify and Google Play.

“It’s important for young people to feel they can make a difference, and these students are demonstrating that in a really powerful, beautiful way,” Meizel said. “One of the reasons I’m so impressed with this movement is that they don’t imagine they can’t make a difference; it’s absolutely clear to them they can make a difference, and they are doing it. They don’t sit back and say, ‘My voice doesn’t count.’ They are making it count.

“The students have different ideas about what reform should look like, but they all want to be safe in school and they all want to help heal people who have been harmed. They want to tell their representatives to care more about young people than about the gun lobby. Some want to tell policymakers they will soon be able to vote and will be making an impact politically. The want to encourage other young people to use their voices the way they have, and vote.”

Last spring, as the country reeled from yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, students organized a walkout on March 14, 2018, memorializing the 17 students and teachers who were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It was the first of a series of rallies organized by students calling for an end to gun violence. The first walkout was followed on March 24 by the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and other cities across the country, and then a walkout for the April 20 remembrance of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Meizel said she watched in rapt attention. As an ethnomusicologist, one of her primary focus areas is music in culture and human life, “what music means to people in life,” she said.

“I like to use contemporary examples for my classes, where we talk a lot about music in politics and music in resistance,” she said. “I was looking online to see what music people were performing, and there was so much. I started archiving it. It was on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. There was a ton of music — original music, protest music from the 1960s, little kids’ choirs, music from films, choral music, religious music, secular music. it was beautiful.

“After the March 14 walkout, I gave friends Facebook access to a Google-doc archive of every link I could find, and one who’s a music editor at NPR asked me to write a piece about it for their website.”

Meizel’s piece, Music and Protest, Hand in Hand: Songs of the Student Walkouts,” catalogued the styles of music she was hearing from the walkout sites during the March 14 event.

She also archived as many of the performances during the March for Our Lives and the April 20 walkout as she could.

“What struck me on those days as being unusual or unexpected was that students were performing original music, songs they had written. They were really compelling and powerful,” Meizel said. “I’m one of a lot of people who are inspired by the work young people are doing. It’s really impressive. It’s something different, this generation. They are building on what came before them; for example, the work people of color have been doing for decades but were not recognized for it or were being put down for it. Today’s young people are making an effort to be inclusive and to recognize what’s been done and is being done.”

Again on Facebook, she commented that “these songs are amazing, and I hope someone records them.”

Another friend, Nichole Dechaine, a soprano and choir director in Santa Barbara, California, referred Meizel to Jim Pugh, CEO of Little Village Foundation, a nonprofit record label that “records artists who might be marginalized out of the mainstream, at no cost to the artists,” Meizel said. “We talked and developed the project together from there. He has done the hard fundraising work and is also the musical co-producer, along with Kid Anderson. He has a board that helped with fundraising, too.

“The students got an honorarium and retained rights to their music. We were concerned that they have the best possible deal,” she said.

“My job was to identify, locate, contact and stay in contact with the students and their parents. Some could not be part of it, but we found a good number. I went to all the recording sessions I could, interviewed the students, arranged for the cover art and wrote the liner notes.

“Their performances were beautiful and heartfelt,” she said. “They were very professional and did things quickly and efficiently and well. I feel so privileged to have been able to work with them and learn their thoughts. They are paying attention, and I hope they will help other people pay attention.”

The album’s title track, “Raise Your Voice,” for voice and piano, was performed by 16-year-old Madison Yearsley of Seneca Falls, New York, which she had performed at the March for Our Lives gathering in her hometown, along with the song written by the Parkland students.

“I realized that something needs to change, and something needs to change now,” Yearsley said. “And I need to use my voice. I think that people underestimate the power that their voice has, because, oh, it’s just one voice. But that’s how things start, that’s how movements begin — it’s with one voice.”

“This made me cry when we recorded it,” Meizel said. “We chose it as the title track because it contains the phrase ‘raise your voice,’ and all the students used that idea of ‘voice’ in their interviews or in their songs.”

The album also contains a new, acoustic version of “Shine,” written by Margery Stoneman Douglas High School survivors Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Peña to encourage unity “during a very dark time, to help shine the light and move forward during something so terrible.” “Shine” has become an anthem for the movement against gun violence.  

Recording sessions were arranged in three locations: At the John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School on Staten Island, New York; in Atlanta; and in Salt Lake City.

Some songs were born of students’ personal experience, such as the Parkland students’ and Tyler Suarez’s. He recorded "Little Princess," memorializing his aunt Dawn Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, who was killed in 2002.

Saida Dahir, who came to the United States as a Muslim child refugee from Somalia, performed her hard-hitting slam poem “A Poem for the Fallen," based on her lived experience.

Students at the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, where many attendees have been personally touched by gun violence, performed "We Can," presented as a structured conversation between characters — one voice supporting the use of guns to fight violence, one speaking against it, and one a neutral observer.

The CD cover was designed by a college sociology major in San Diego. “He had won a competition for protest art for March for Our Lives. We saw that and asked him,” Meizel said.