Protest Music and the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution

These days, I watch the news feeds from Hong Kong. I only half-listen to the announcers, the people on the barricades or the experts. Instead, I listen to what's going on behind the live shots of the talking heads in front of the action. I'm listening for music.

Hong Kong's courageous Umbrella Revolution already has a soundtrack of its own. One song is "Under a Vast Sky" by Beyond, Hong Kong's greatest rock band, with lines that still resonate many years after the song's first release: "Forgive me for embracing freedom in my life."   The other is "Do You Hear the People Sing," the anthem at the heart of the musical Les Miserables: "It is the music of the people/Who will not be slaves again."   But I'm actually listening for another song, or songs -- songs that have inspired captive peoples for hundreds of years. I'm listening for "We Shall Overcome," "Ain't Nobody Gonna Turn Me 'Round," "We Shall Not be Moved," "This Little Light of Mine." At some point, a microphone will capture a protest spiritual or a freedom song in Hong Kong.

I know this because those songs have been sung in the Arab Spring and on Tiananmen Square and at a thousand thousand rallies, protests, mass meetings and jails around the world, just as they were sung in Montgomery, Albany, Birmingham, Selma, Chicago and Memphis.

According to Zora Neale Hurston, these songs were first spread by High John de Conquer, the African American mythic spirit of survival and defiance. From slavery to the civil rights era, High John sped along the mystic grapevine of black America, spreading courage and hope. Today High John is spread by social media.

In early September, a man named Bob Kraft -- who I do not know -- posted on his Facebook page a call for pro-democracy forces to gather at the Hong Kong Wall at Hong Kong's Central Government office where all assembled would hear the stories and learn the freedom songs of the American civil rights movement. I don't know how many people showed up -- if any. But if not then or there, then High John de Conquer took the message somewhere else, again and again and again.

People sing freedom songs because they have power. Christian people, Islamic people, Jewish people and people with no religious faith at all sing them. They have been orally transmitted from generation to generation in an almost apostolic succession, waiting only for the need to arise. Like ancient stories of King Arthur, said sleeping dreamlessly under some hill in Wales, waiting to be summoned in the time of England's greatest need, the protest spirituals and freedom songs are always there. Waiting. Waiting to be called upon again.

I have spent the last eight years tracking these songs, from the fragmentary records of the Antebellum South to the singing of "We Shall Overcome" at the funeral of every great African American freedom fighter for the last fifty years. I have immersed myself in them. When I hear them sung on a scratchy recording of a nameless mass meeting near Greenwood, Mississippi, the hairs rise on my forearms. Brother, there is power here.

One of the great heroes of the civil rights movement, Bernice Johnson Reagon, once said, "When you get together at a mass meeting, you sing the songs which symbolize transformation, which make that revolution of courage inside you. You raise a freedom song."

So, each night, I flip among ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera or PBS and listen for the sounds of Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution. I'm listening to history being made, to history being sung. I'm listening for the digital footsteps of High John de Conquer.

Robert Darden is an Associate Professor of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media at Baylor University. His book Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement will be released this month from Penn State University Press.