People-led social change is devilishly complicated. Sometimes it emerges slowly, sometimes quickly; tactics, strategies and ideologies which prove successful in some cases turn out terribly in others.
One of the few constants audible above this chaos is The Chant. Get a big old group of people in a place and there’s a pretty finite list of things for them to do. Chanting is one of the things. It’s easy, too: crowds chant like oceans roll, without needing a prompt.
This does not, however, mean that all chanting is equally good. And with Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Big One’ promising to put 50,000 souls in Parliament Square this weekend – many of whom will necessarily be bright green newbies, most of whom will have a sense of song – we thought now would be a good time for a recap of the ecological movement’s latest musical developments.
1 – The default
What do we want?
When do we want it?
You know what we want. The quintessential climate call, heard so reliably at eco-actions all across the world that seasoned eco-freaks don’t even notice it.
You can see why it’s so ubiquitous. A naked refit of that eternal ‘what do we want’ formula which probably dates back to something like the Magna Carta, it’s as direct as an inebriated Dutchman. The trusty call-and-response format offers an easy way in even for those who’ve yet to master all three words. The words themselves, similarly, are about as broad in appeal as our movement gets – who could say no to climate justice?
Its simple strengths, alas, might also be this number’s limitations. If there are any two words that the world needs, then perhaps these are them; but then again, the world probably needs much more than two words – especially when the words in question have attained shibboleth/marmite status, more likely to polarise than persuade.
In both its words and sounds, this number conveys the impression that the eco-rabble is phoning it in: singing easy songs with messages we’re as comfortable reciting as our audience is with dismissing. And hey, there’s nothing really wrong with that, especially as a comparative breather between some of the more electric numbers on this list. Diversity of tactics works on the soundwaves too!
2 – The self-hype
The collective equivalent of looking at yourself in the mirror and barking ‘Who the man?!’. Useful in some cases? Sure! A bit embarrassing in others? Maybe!
On paper, this word-combo’s a winner, for all the same reasons it works as a household name. The implied sequence of actual extinction(s) leading to actual rebellion has a kind of quiet cleverness to it, accentuated by the gentle rhyme.
Off paper, roared from large numbers of throats… it’s possible that some of these subtleties wilt a bit. As a bald assertion of group identity, there’s always been a whiff of aggro to it – more shout than chant as such. And maybe this is helpful: groups need to define themselves, don’t they? At the right moment, it can be pure elation to share this primeval war-cry with what it’s suddenly tempting to think of as your ‘tribe’.
On the other hand though, movements need to be inclusive: to have porous edges through which curious newcomers can ease their way in. This raveller suspects that shouting the name of an organisation at someone might not, all other things being equal, be that effective as a way of getting them to join it.
This chant/shout is thus a pretty decent miniature of the mobilising vs organising riddle which XR – like so many before it – has come to wrestle with.
Embarrassment factor: 2-8 (context-dependent)
3 – The works
Or real-life crowd version here
People gonna rise like the water,
We’re gonna shut this system down.
In the voice of my great granddaughter:
Climate justice now
Songs don’t generally work as chants. Demanding melody and verses from a busy crowd – while also stripping out the safety-rails of the call-and-response format – can often end badly (see ‘Bella Ciao rewrite’ in part two). But when it works, it really works.
Rise like water ticks all the boxes. Swaggering, blues-y melody that practically gets down on its knees and begs for crunchy harmonies? Check. Lilting, menacing, but somehow also stately rhythm? Check. Words which dance along the messaging tightrope, serving up striking imagery, righteous feeling, clarity of purpose and easy singability? Check-mate, planet-wreckers.
As basically every other entry in this list can testify, it’s harder than you’d think to string even a tiny chant-friendly number of words together such that they say something meaningful without also curling some of your fellow marchers’ toes. Depicting said marchers as no less a humanitarian horror sea-level rise is daring, but it also absolutely works, presenting listeners with a stark dilemma between one inevitable form of inundation or another.
Admittedly, Rise fluffs its toughest question by offering about a dozen options for ‘we’re gonna’. Raveller considers ‘shut this system down’ the standard version, but real fire-breathers have been known to prefer ‘burn this system down’, while the moderate flank might get on better with ‘turn this system round’, ‘face this crisis now’, or the gloriously tame ‘calm this crisis down’.
This raveller’s favourite thing about this jam, though, is that great granddaughter. The stone-cold-literal interpretation is that the original author was some wise old great-grandmother; but what’s surely more plausible is that generations not yet born are singing through us.
4 – The browbeaters
Technically all different chants, but energetically identical: the audio equivalent of an enormous wagging finger. No. 4.2’s lumbering rhythm in particular gives this raveller unwelcome schoolroom flashbacks – but all three share the same unenviable melodic basis of ‘duotony’, i.e. one step away from literal monotony.
With lyrics at once admirably and depressingly literal, these items are an object lesson in the risks of a) negative but also b) impersonal messaging. Whatever the occasion is, chances are most people in your eco-rabble have deeper motivations for attendance than pure loathing of hydrocarbons.
Like everything on this beautiful planet, there’s probably a place for these tunes; perhaps an actual confrontation with suit-wearers involved in writing energy strategy. Though even here, a decent size of crowd will mean that most participants are still haranguing fellow protestors: i.e. the very last people who need to hear it.
5 – Ride that tiger
We are unstoppable, another world is possible
Syncopated rhythms you could storm a building to – if this strikes up, you know you’ve got a good time going. This will partly be because Unstoppable creates good vibes, and partly too because it demands them: sleepy crowds with no ambitions beyond an insta-worthy stroll will, quite rightly, struggle to keep up.
Unusual among chants for its relative musicality, Unstoppable enjoys a rolling boil of a rhythm which – Raveller’s resident poet points out – lines up miraculously neatly to its lyrics, both metrically and energetically. These lyrics, too, are super-solid in their own right, somehow avoiding the gamut of messaging pitfalls to offer vibes and visioning in equal measure.
Like so many on this list, Unstoppable’s strength is once again its arguable downfall. Much like Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in 1994 action-thriller classic Speed, passengers may well find themselves captives of momentum, icily aware that slowing down means sure catastrophe. Short of emergency diversion to an airport runway, marchers will either need to pray for divine interruption or embrace a messy finish as a streetside lesson in living with imperfection.
Hype factor: 10
That’s all we’ve got for this week – for more essential eco-chants, stay tuned!
Whatever we might think of any particular song or sound, Raveller loves what underlies them all. Raising our voices together is an irreplicable form of human togetherness: there’s no question it’s good for us as individuals; it can also nourish a more collective, movement-scale soul.
If you’d like to engage more deeply with the songs of protest, XR Song Carriers is a great UK-based resource. You could also look for choirs with radical inclinations (you might be surprised by how many there are!), or even try your hand at drumming.
 Well ok… Unstoppable shares with many other chants the debatable drawback of implausible optimism. Are we actually unstoppable? This might sound like execrable nit-picking, but it’s a serious point: this raveller spent two years tailoring the tone of XR’s comms output, and came to very much mistrust the widely held assumption that the hype-machine should always be dialled to 100. A movement cannot live on manic optimism. In fairness though, a march probably can.