Chants and Songs of Black Lives Matter

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“They left us dead! They left us dead!
And we ain’t supposed to be mad?”

Last Saturday, April 1, 2017, I had the opportunity to attend a Black Lives Matter protest in the southeastern quadrant of Washington, DC. Since it was the first BLM instance I attended in my life (I hope it isn’t the last), I learned a lot about the movement, its participants, and various social and political elements of this particular protest.

Pre-March Orientation

Before the “Take Back Our Streets” event, both the Black Lives Matter DC and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) organizations posted an invitation on Facebook for white participants to “attend a pre-march orientation” led by SURJ about how they can and should respectfully participate during the protest. I went to this training, scheduled for 12:30 pm, because I was interested in how SURJ would handle the crucial responsibility to educate non-black marchers. I also didn’t want to unintentionally disrespect the community I was in.

Several young white ladies from SURJ introduced themselves to the non-black supporters gathered outside of Congress Heights Metro station and told us to introduce ourselves with our name, our pronoun/s, and whether or not we’ve been to a protest before. The fact that they asked for our gender pronouns illustrates SURJ’s social and political liberality and desire to include those who identify themselves as “they” and other nontraditional gender roles.

They taught us important points about how we (white people) should behave in a Black-led protest. These are listed below along with SURJ’s explanation.

  1. No selfies – the protest is about them (Black people), not about us white people.
  2. No talking with journalists – if a journalist approaches you, you should direct them to a media representative of the organization. We don’t know enough about the movement to talk to the media.
  3. Non-white chants – some chants should only be said by Black people, not by whites. An example of this is the chant featured at the beginning of this article, “They left us dead! They left us dead! And we ain’t supposed to be mad?” White people, SURJ reasons, are not killed by police as often and therefore should not chant this phrase when it is started.
  4. Pulling white people aside – sometimes, white people may unintentionally do something that could offend Black people, such as taking a selfie or joining a Black-only chant. It is our duty as white people to pull them aside and correct their mistakes in a polite and responsible manner.

Chants and Songs

One of the most interesting elements of the event was the usage of chants and songs. I noticed that these two types of rhythmic phrases served two purposes:

  1. To keep participants in sync and maintain order
  2. To further express their demands and sentiments among themselves and to onlookers (police)
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Protesters learning new chants –  Courtesy of Keshini Ladduwahetty

As pointed out by SURJ and black speakers, some chants could only be said by Black participants while others could be said by everyone. To emphasize the importance of this principle, a chant was started by Jonathan Lykes:

Some chants are for Black folks,
Some chants are for everybody.

 

An example of a chant that everybody was allowed to say:

I love Black people. You don’t love Black people?
What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with you?

This chant, however, served a different purpose than the previous one. As Jonathan Lykes said at the beginning of the march, “We usually say this looking at the police. Like really trying to ask them. I’m curious to know. It’s not a rhetorical question.” He also explained to the audience how this chant should also be asked among the participants: another way this chant keeps people in sync with each other.

However, this upcoming chant, a universal one, describes the “visceral nature of the police state of Black lives.” Lykes then mentioned how law enforcement officers allegedly took 4 hours to call an ambulance after Michael Brown was shot because they were trying to get their side of the story straight.

They left us dead! (x3)
And we ain’t supposed to be mad?
Let my people go!
Set my people free!
I’m letting my people know,
I love you like you and me.

Additionally, Lykes talked about the “chant culture” of the overall Black Lives Matter movement. “Holistic energy,” was also mentioned as a significant part of the march which I found extremely interesting. It reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s emphasis on establishing unity between participants (Black and non-Black) during the Civil Rights Movement. However the late nonviolent revolutionary also connected Christianity to his submovement (a movement with a larger movement) something that I did not witness in this protest. For example, God, Christ, or other Biblical phrases and figures were not mentioned.

Nevertheless, the beauty of the ‘blackness’ of participants was celebrated with this obviously Black-only chant:

I said I love being Black! (x2)
I love the color of my skin,
‘Cause it’s the skin that I’m in!
I love the texture of my hair,
And I will rock it everywhere!

However, Lykes was quick to clarify that chants aren’t enough for the protest. So, he introduced a short song:

Mama, mama can’t you see?
What the system’s done to me:
They lock us up and keep us down.
Ain’t no justice in this town. (x5)


These chants and songs were passionate and energetic: some people jumped as they sang while others clapped. Anger was either soothed or nurtured during the march, a beautiful indication of the power of these verbal melodies among groups of people. It was an effective strategy to keep participants in sync with each other (holistic energy) and to keep them under control. The chants and songs also served as a way to appropriately express emotions and send messages to those around them, including the police.

As expected, there was a heavy “us vs. them” sentiment among the marchers against law enforcement, who observed us at a non-threatening but cautious distance. In Part Two, I will describe the behavior of the police, the different types of protesters, and the rousing effect both sides had on the community they traveled through.

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