Local, national musicians utilize song as tool for activism

Cellist and music teacher Beth Almore frequently plays her instrument at Marcus-David Peters Circle to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo by Megan Lee

Ebonique Little, Contributing Writer

Cellist Beth Almore sits once a week near a graffitied Confederate statue and scattered protest signs, playing a somber song for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — signifying how long former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck.

“And even I feel like after six minutes, I’m like ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this piece is still going,’” Almore said. “It’s horrifying, and there’s no way we can understand what that felt like.”

In Marcus-David Peters Circle, the area surrounding the Robert E. Lee statue, local musicians frequently perform as a form of activism. Named after the VCU alumnus who was killed by a Richmond Police officer in 2018, the area is a hub for Black Lives Matter protests in the city.

Almore, a Richmond resident and itinerant music teacher, said she plays her cello at the circle because she doesn’t know how else to express her emotions. She was surprised by the number of memorials at the site, which pay tribute to victims of police brutality. 

“So I just said, ‘I have to come play music for these people,’” Almore said. “I just thought, if there is something in the universe where they can understand — if there is an afterlife — I want them to know that we are deeply sad about what happened to them.”

Almore said she redirects the attention she garners to the demands of the protesters.

“I realized that, essentially, I’m making a spectacle of myself when I put myself out there playing the cello,” Almore said. “As a Black woman, that attracts attention and I can leverage that and use that as a platform to speak the Black Lives Matter truth.”

Richmond-based jazz band No BS! Brass performed at Marcus-David Peters Circle on July 28, when Floyd’s family visited for the unveiling of the George Floyd Hologram Memorial Project. The 11-piece band played original songs, such as “RVA All Day” and “3am Bounce.” 

One of the band’s trombonists, Reggie Pace, said music is important for this movement, especially in the midst of the pandemic. He was happy to see the Richmond community come together.

“It was great,” Pace said. “You know, I think music is a great way to make it really clear that there’s lots of people doing positive things in the area when it gets characterized as like, anarchy or just destruction all the time when people speak of the movement.”

Since then, Pace said he frequents the location to participate in the community events, like movies, gardens, art and performances. He notices musicians there nearly every day.

“It’s a different type of historical landmark now,” Pace said.

The Black Lives Matter movement has grown to include several hip-hop and R&B artists seeking justice.

Petersburg, Virginia, native Trey Songz released “2020 Riots: How Many Times,” a ballad that questions the cycle of police brutality. 

Songz repeats similar questions over the track’s piano melody and gospel choir. “How many mothers have to cry?/How many brothers gotta die?/How many more times?”

The accompanying music video includes footage from Richmond protests and the Black Lives Matter events that the artist hosted around the city on Juneteenth weekend.

Rapper YG also organized a demonstration in June and captured it for his “FTP” music video, where he urges listeners to support defunding the police. With over 100,000 people in attendance, according to crowd estimates by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, some believe it was the biggest anti-racism protest held in Los Angeles to date.

In the song, the rapper conveys his distrust with law enforcement in the line, “Protect and serve mean duck and swerve.”

In a soulful tone, Grammy-award winner H.E.R. sings “If we all agree that we’re equal as people, then why can’t we see what is evil?” in her song “I Can’t Breathe,” the title echoing Floyd’s pleas before he was killed.

Over the strums of a guitar, Floyd’s name is surrounded by countless others. In the end of the video, H.E.R. highlights one phrase in yellow: “Black Lives Matter.”

Pace believes the growing number of musicians encapsulating the Black Lives Matter movement is significant.

“It’s just a sign of the times, you know, the music — it’ll last forever,” Pace said. “So, being a part of keeping people’s spirits up is how I feel like music and art helps with change.”

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