Saying that music can change the world is far more than a cliché. It doesn’t take a music historian to pinpoint the times when people have united in a communal rage through a protest song or wrapped themselves in a shared grief through a piece of music.
One person who fully believes in the power of music to open the doors is singer-songwriter Melissa James, the host of the Stronger on Sundays sessions. What started as a loose plan to bring a community together over Zoom in those early days of lockdown coalesced into something else entirely following the murder of George Floyd, with James realising that she wanted to start covering more powerful and prescient themes.
Looking back today (aptly) over Zoom, Melissa recalls how she felt around the Black Lives Matter uprising happening in 2020. ‘We were all largely locked down’, she says, ‘and everything was much more magnified because there was nothing to distract us. Clearly one of the key things about George Floyd’s murder was that it was filmed. Eight minutes or so of watching a police officer with their weight on the neck of a man — there was no way to avoid that. Given the intensity of the whole thing, there may well have been a sense that we have to get out and protest.’ Melissa — describing herself as someone who doesn’t generally attend street protests — made an exception for this, but soon realised that she was better suited to a different form of protest. ‘Sometimes I feel a bit guilty when friends of mine tell me they’re going to protests,’ she admits. ‘I feel like I should be joining them because I believe in the cause. But I know that it’s not for me, and that’s okay. There’s more than one way to do things.’
Having pressed pause on the sessions for a few months in order to take stock, Stronger on Sundays returned later in the summer with a sharper focus on discussing matters of race and prejudice. On the first return session, guests included Chi-Chi Nwanoku and Russell Oliver Stone. The former — a Black woman who runs a classical orchestra aimed at young people of African-Asian heritage — had plenty of things to say about her experiences in a field predominantly dominated by white people.
But despite the conversations being insightful and powerful, something was still missing — until Melissa’s realised that the missing ingredient was music itself. ‘Music had to be at the heart of it all — it holds the space.’ From the start of last year, it became a central pillar of the entire project.
‘One of our first speakers was Ben Okafor — a Nigerian musician based here in the UK — but also a former child soldier in the Biafran War in Nigeria,’ she says. ‘He had some powerful experiences, both as a child soldier and in terms of being a musician of African heritage. His songs are protest songs.’ The combination of those experiences being matched by the music proved itself to be something that Melissa describes as ‘subtly powerful.’ ‘I don’t think we have to shout or be loud about everything,’ she smiles, ‘I feel that this is the strongest way to convey a message. I think it’s so powerful because it just winds its way into your heart whether you want to or not.’
We chat about the power and potency of protest music, and why it has the impact it does. Melissa laughs as she shrugs about the why’s and how’s. ‘I almost don’t want to understand it,’ she says. ‘One of the beautiful things about somebody telling you that your music has affected them is that you didn’t expect it to happen. All I’m doing is writing a song and conveying what’s inside of me.’ She laughs as she finishes, ‘I don’t even how that song comes to me sometimes. It works and that’s the thing.’ Wherever it comes from, making the music an integral part of Stronger on Sundays does indeed work. Melissa gives one example of someone logging in to watch a particularly powerful piece on white privilege just because of the artist that was performing there. ‘The music and the musicians bring people into the space,’ she explains, ‘and I think that’s a safer way of bringing people into something that. Otherwise they may worry they will feel uncomfortable, or they might think they don’t need to join because they’re a good person. “Racism doesn’t concern me because I’m not racist,” that kind of thing.’ Those are the people that I want to reach the most, because I’m trying to make people understand how racism plays out in them with compassion. It is so insidious; we just don’t realise how it’s weaving its way through our lives and our bodies.’ Other notable sessions include one on the impact of slavery, many of which are still are felt around the world today as one glance at the events of last year in Bristol with the Edward Colston statue shows.
Our talk turns to the effects of racism that are still felt in the music industry today, and the extra hurdles that many Black artists and industry workers still have to jump. ‘It still happens because we don’t face up to it and we don’t discuss it,’ she states, ‘but I would add that this is the work of everybody, and not just the work of people who are white.’ Later, we discuss what the industry needs to do to enact real change and she returns to that same point even more strongly — admitting a frustration that many in the industry are only looking for a surface-level change in practices. ‘People only want a conversation if I do it in a way that is packaged for them and held in a way that makes sense for them,’ she points out. ‘Only if it is one of those conversations where you’re just talking bullet points: “We’re going to make changes, we’re going to bring in more African and Asian staff members, we’re going to change the look, have more diversity.” But Melissa wants to go deeper. She points out that if we only talk about racial issues from a workplace point of view, then only those workplaces are going to be impacted. Instead, a deeper level of change is needed across society itself. ‘I don’t ever stop being Black,’ she says, ‘I don’t stop being seen as what I am and it doesn’t matter where I go, I’m always thinking about it. Even if I’m not conscious of it, there’s an element of code-switching depending on where I’m going or who I’m talking to. The industry isn’t getting it yet, it’s all a bit too deep for them. It’s quite hard and I get it, but if we’re serious about it then that is what we have to do.’
Keen to avoid the potential pitfalls of Stronger on Sundays only appealing to those who she describes with heavy air quotes as ‘woke,’ Melissa wants the space to appeal to all. ‘I’m wary of creating or adding to that potential of people who are satisfying their egos by coming into that space and feeling like “good” white people more than anything,’ she says. ‘My intention is not to create good white people who go away feeling like they attended ‘Stronger on Sundays’ and that’s all they need to do. But equally it’s not to drive away African or Asian or indigenous people who perhaps don’t feel like they need to be part of that space. They may also feel that we’re the ones who incur the consequences of racism, and it’s quite harmful to keep talking about what racism does. I understand that.’
For Melissa, that is where the music comes in again — where the capacity to bring people in through a love of music will also provoke being part of an important conversation. She describes how important it is for viewers to feel something, rather than just think about it. With future sessions based around food, drink and fashion — and how racism plays its part with all of those — it is only the beginning of what Melissa hopes to do with the sessions. Whether it’s the impact of slavery on fast fashion, or who it is that actually picks the cocoa that makes up coffee and chocolate, what payments are made to farmers, these are weighty subjects with no easy answers. ‘It’s not quite as simple as saying we should all stop going to H&M and stores like that,’ she explains. ‘It’s about having an awareness. Racism plays out in ways that you don’t expect, it is part of the fibers of who we are. The fabric of our society and how we live has been built on it. So much of our food and clothes comes from modern day slavery, and the people impacted by these practices are mostly Black and brown. That’s not an accident, it’s the result of colonialism and how we have lived. It’s a crazy system and I’m really looking forward to having that conversation.’
If you want to be a part of the conversation, you can join a Strong on Sundays session. Stay up to date via Melissa James’ own website.