Ginny Suss, Brooke Williams, and TEDxAsburyPark Founder Brian Smiga talk about The Resistance Revival Chorus, which will perform at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019.
Brian Smiga: Hi, this is Brian Smiga. I'm the Founder of TEDxAsburyPark, and this is an Expert Open Podcast covering one of our great acts at TEDxAsburyPark 2019, happening on Saturday, May 18th at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park.
Please welcome Ginny Suss and Brooke Williams from the Resistance Revival Chorus. Welcome.
Brooke Williams: Thank you.
Ginny Suss: Thank you.
Brian Smiga: I had the pleasure of hearing the Resistance Revival Chorus (RRC) at the TED headquarters in SoHo, New York, and I was blown away. And, of course, the nation's heard so much from you since then.
Do you want to do a quick intro of yourselves? Because you're two of 70 women in the Resistance Revival Chorus, and I love your backstories. So, tell us about what you do when you're not singing.
Ginny Suss: Hi, I'm Ginny Suss. I'm a producer, a content creator and I do a lot of curations, specifically live event curations on music. I am an artist/manager for the Resistance Revival Chorus, and I'm also a photographer.
Brooke Williams: My name is Brooke Williams. I am also a photographer, and an editor, a blogger, and a sort of on and off musician. Although, now with the Chorus, it's much more on, than off, which is amazing. And I’m an activist, which I think is a really important part of both of our lives... it's become such a constant, that you almost forget to add it, like breathing, at this point.
Brian Smiga: That's great. So activism, art, music, all coming together, and not just for the two of you, but probably for so many members of the Chorus. I understand there are 70 now, and you are enjoying a well-deserved success. But, let's go back to the beginning. How did this idea of the Resistance Revival Chorus come about?
Ginny Suss: The Resistance Revival Chorus was born with a group of women who worked together on the Women's March. I was one of the co-founders of the Women's March, and I produced the march in Washington. I connected with some amazing women, and in fact, that's where Brooke and I met. We had kind of passed each other before then in New York, but we really got to know each other working together on the Women's March.
Ginny Suss: It was a small group of us that got together, most of my creative collaborators who helped with the sort of production and the stage ... the artistic direction. It was about six months after the march, and we had all been involved in so much in that short compressed period of time. We had been at protests and in the streets, doing social media campaigns, and calling our senators, and advocating.
There had been so much work going on, and so much bad news in the press every day, that by the Summer of 2017, we were all feeling a little deflated. We realized that we had been neglecting the self-care portion of activism that's so necessary, and we said, "We want to do something ..." We really started the Chorus as a kind of selfish endeavor; we just wanted something that made us feel good internally. So we decided to put a call out to a bunch of women to say, "Do you want to come sing protest songs? We're going to have a sing-a-long, but we’re not sure what this will become."
Brian Smiga: So it started off as a restorative moment to get together and sing-a-long.
Ginny Suss: Brooke was one of the original people that we reached out to. It was a lot of musicians who I reached out to through my networks. I've been working in music for 17 years, and I knew a lot of working New York City musicians. So I put a call out to all the women I knew who were singers, and I didn't expect much, because this wasn't a paid gig. Women are so marginalized and underrepresented in the music industry that I think it's hard for working musicians, particularly women, to engage in a lot of unpaid gigs, because making a living is such a difficult endeavor.
So I had low expectations. I thought a couple of women would trickle into our friend Sarah Sophie's living room. It ended up being 30+ women. We were spilling out of her living room, we couldn't fit. So many of these musicians came to me and said, "Thank you for this, because I've been wanting to get engaged, and I've been wanting to become an activist, and become more politicized, and become more aware, and figure out how I could be more deeply engaged with my community. I just didn't know how, I didn't know what I could do as a singer to enhance the progressive political movement of the moment."
Ginny Suss: Now they have a way to do that. So it ended up being this amazing meeting of the minds of musicians exploring their activism, and activists exploring their musicality.
Brian Smiga: Wow.
Brooke Williams: To jump in, what made it so special was that it was this kind of authentic mix of people who shared an interest of music, and of forming a community through voice, as well as being activist-minded. Although everyone came to the table with a different combination of those pieces, it has become this incredible support group, and really a family. We have a signal chain ... literally every day there's another ... you know, someone's having a conference, and then different people come, or somebody's starting a protest, and someone else is going to make the posters.
Brooke Williams: There are a number of us who are mothers in the group, and we've got our kids coming in and out of the rehearsals and the performances. It's been, across the board, consistently the most positive, supportive group of people I have ever been involved with, bar none. There are no fights. I can't believe what an incredibly supportive group, and what a supportive community we are, and it projects.
Brooke Williams: What's amazing is that the audiences, people who we sing to, you can see on their faces, this real connection, and it's about having this sense of community, which is what we need, if we want to be pushing our nation forward in a positive direction.
Brian Smiga: It's so interesting that this common ground brings the group together across multiple connections, all activists, but now brought together by song. There's so many aspects to that, raising our voices, working in harmony, bonding. It's really interesting. When did you know that this was a big idea? When did the world start to signal that this really works?
Ginny Suss: I think it happened pretty early on. That first day, that first meeting, that first sing-a-long, we realized there were a lot of women interested in coming together and connecting through song, and thinking about what it means to have a soundtrack to this particular historical moment in time, and thinking about writing new music for it, and healing each other through songs.
We knew at that first meeting that there was something special going on there. Quickly thereafter, one of our co-founders, Paula Mendoza, who's a director and an artist herself, thought of the idea of creating a video that she'd direct, that was a pop-up action, where we would bring a song that we learned at the first rehearsal, and we would sing it in Times Square. That song is called "Rich Man's House," and it was written for the labor movement.
We made a little pop-up video, and it ended up getting 1.5 million views. So I think that was the first time that the world sort of latched on to this idea and said, "Oh, we're excited for this as well. We're excited for this content, we want to see more of this."
Brian Smiga: Great. What happened next? This is summer of 2017, here we are almost two years later.
Ginny Suss: Brooke, do you want to talk from your perspective about what happened next?
Brooke Williams: It started out as a slow trickle of performances. We started monthly, although sometimes it's every other month, but, an evening where we host almost like a cabaret, where we will, as a chorus, often open and close the evenings. Then we have all sorts of different solo performances, some from members of the chorus, some from guests, people who we admire. The idea being a sort of a celebration of our victories.
We try to have it benefit a particular organization. So we talk about whatever that organization is, and we talk about various legislative victories... just sort of celebrating the work that people have been doing, that you don't necessarily hear about, to help to counter that deflated feeling that Ginny was describing, that we were all feeling half a year into the Trump administration.
Then all of a sudden we are singing at a massive meditation prayer meeting in Madison Square Garden. Then all of a sudden, Ginny comes with this handwritten note from Philip Glass, who's invited us to participate in the benefit that he does at Carnegie Hall for Tibet House, and we worked with Carly Simon. Seems like these things just come out of the air, although, if you talk to Ginny, Ginny definitely is the air out of which many of these things come.
She has such a wide reach and is so well-respected in the community, and it just continued to roll. What's really incredible is that because we're a group of 70, we're never all in one place at one time, but a big group of us will be able to go to pretty much all of these performances, or gatherings, or marches, that we decide that we want to take part in.
What's made it really great is that the chorus can be a powerful and large presence, but each individual member doesn't feel overwhelmed by having to go to everything that's going on. Even though I think every time I hear something that I can't make, I'm like, "Oh," you know? Like we're in Boston with the ACLU this week. But it's just been this incredible series of opportunities to perform, and to connect with people, and to share.
Brian Smiga: I love that the group can reassemble and transform, and go different places, because you are 70. How many of you, and what was the experience like with Kesha at the Grammys? That must have been pretty fantastic.
Ginny Suss: In general, we put every gig out to the whole chorus, and then whoever's able to make it joins. So it's very essentially meant to work for touring musicians, or mothers, or working women, who can't come to every gig. It's sort of this big, fluid, in and out, flowing group, where it's always a different configuration.
At the Grammys, that was a time we weren't able to have the entire chorus, but we had a great core group of members representing. Working with Kesha was amazing. I think that I didn't quite give Kesha enough credit until this song, when she did the song "Praying", and I researched the history, and how it was really a woman standing up against sexual violence, against sexual abuse, and letting her voice be heard. But it was also this message of love and of hope.
I think it was really powerful, and performing at the Grammys was definitely the next step up from our little homemade video. It got some views, and definitely positioned us in a different space, and I think it raised awareness.
Brian Smiga: I had so many inbound calls from folks, and it was a beautiful performance. I know that you are going to have many more consciousness and activism-raising performances ahead.
Ginny Suss: We also did a Spotify session with Jim James, and were on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon with Jim James, and we just did a big residency with Bon Iver and Aaron Estner from The National, and all these amazing artists.
Working with other artists and collaborating with other artists is an incredible experience, because it stretches us from outside of our own internal routine and what we do. At the end of the day, some of the most powerful performances we've participated in have been not filled with celebrity, and have in fact been about the work. You know, for me, my favorite performance we've ever done, we only had I think nine chorus members, and we went up to Harlem, and we sang songs in Spanish. We sang Spanish lullabies to children who were being held in a detention center when family separation first exploded, and they were driving kids around the country to different locations.
That was such a powerful moment. But some of the moments where we've actively popped up in protest or done a direct action have been more meaningful to me than any collaboration we've had the opportunity to do.
Brian Smiga: That's wonderful. Now you've built a toolkit that enables other groups to create activist choruses. Talk about that, because they can have these kinds of experiences, and raise their voices as well.
Ginny Suss: The social media that we did behind the Women's March involved a lot of toolkits, which were easily accessible documents that gave pointed directions that people could take...that kind of spoon-fed various actions.
I know that Brooke and her team created a ton of these for the Women's March. I think when we first came up with the chorus, we were still in that model of, "How can we empower people outside of where we are physically from our own little bubble, that's similar to the idea of these sister marches that popped up all over the globe?" We said, "Well, let's make one of our famous toolkits, and let people know what we did, and just put it out there."
So, if someone's interested in creating their own chorus, they have this frame of reference for how we made it happen. So that's what we did, and there have been about, I think, 9 or 10 choruses that have popped up across the country, and there's even a couple in other countries.
Brian Smiga: Ginny, where should people go if they want to learn more about forming a chorus, or utilizing your toolkit?
Ginny Suss: Our toolkit is pinned on our Facebook page, so if you just go to
Facebook/ResistanceRevivalChorus, you can find it.
Brian Smiga: Great. I think if you just search for Resistance Revival Chorus, you'll find it, and you'll find so many wonderful songs and works that you guys are producing. Is there new material? And are you bringing back to life material that we should know about?
Brooke Williams: We are definitely workshopping all sorts of new things. We have plans to record a record, which would be really exciting, and that's still in the preliminary stages. But knowing Ginny, it'll go from preliminary stages to shooting the cover artwork, and it'll be out, you know, before you know it.
That's definitely a goal. I would say probably one of the most logistically difficult things about being this many people is trying to get us together to both learn the songs that we're doing for our various performances, and then also carve out time to write things, to compose new work. It can be difficult.
Although, I will say that, actually, on a bus up to a gig in Massachusetts, we came up with a new song that that we sing all the time now.
Brian Smiga: What is the name of that song? I think that's a good place to close here.
Brooke Williams: That song is called "This Joy." (Editor’s Note: Musician Meah Pace brought “This Joy” to the Chorus and taught it to the members. It's a song that originates from the civil rights movement)
Brian Smiga: "This Joy." I love that song. I understand we're going to get a chance to hear it at the TEDxAsburyPark Conference.
Brooke and Ginny, I have to close this interview now, but I wish we could keep going.
This has been Brian Smiga with Brooke Williams and Ginny Suss from the Resistance Revival Chorus. They'll be appearing with their team at TEDxAsburyPark on Saturday, May 18th at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park. You can get your tickets at TEDxAsburyPark.com.
Brian Smiga: Thanks so much, and I look forward to hearing you sing in a couple of days.
Brooke Williams: All right, thank you.
Ginny Suss: Thanks so much.
Graphic created by Kel Grant.