Local Artists Create Music For, And About, BLM Movement

Sep 29, 2020

Caitlin Shaffer and Jonah Burch are seniors at Skyline High School in Front Royal. They co-wrote 'There's Still Hope.'
Credit Caitlin Shaffer / Johan Burch

The Black Lives Matter movement, like the Civil Rights movement and social justice movements before it, has inspired new music that expresses the political and emotional moment. Musicians in the Shenandoah Valley are among those creating original music that captures the many facets of this movement. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

['There's Still Hope'...]

Jonah Burch and Caitlin Shaffer are seniors at Skyline High School in Front Royal. Coming of age – as young adults, and as artists – during a pandemic and a national uprising for racial justice led them to produce 'There's Still Hope,' a song on Burch's newly released album, 'Split.'

JONAH BURCH: Everything kind of hit, you know. You have the quarantine and then everything hit with the Black Lives Matter movement going super strong … and 'There's Still Hope' just kind of came out of nowhere.

Burch began writing the lyrics and guitar riffs and then sent it to Shaffer for her input while she was starting to attend Black Lives Matter events.

CAITLIN SHAFFER: We had two protests for Black Lives Matter. I was involved in the second one, but I heard the first one turned out so well. You had everyone shouting 'Black Lives Matter,' everyone shouting 'no justice, no peace.' It was just amazing.

Their music is informed by their mutual experience of growing up biracial in an area that, while rural and mostly white, has been a supportive community – most of the time.

BURCH It's definitely an experience that some people cannot attest to, being the only person of color in your classroom. Of being the only person of color in your neighborhood And so when this whole Black Lives Matter thing came to be, it was honestly my first experience, because I am growing up, my first experience actually wanting to get political or actually, I guess, acknowledging those politics. It was a pretty profound moment for me, I feel like.

Burch and Shaffer are just two of the many local artists whose music has been inspired and influenced by Black Lives Matter. Raiquan Thomas has been leaving his own stamp on the movement, performing songs such as 'Put in the Work' at protests and rallies in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County this summer.

['Put in the Work'...]

Raiquan Thomas of Harrisonburg sees his mission as empowering and uplifting people through his music.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

RAIQUAN THOMAS: In the song, I said 'I guess I've gotta put in the work,' but when I was performing it, you know, I said 'I guess we’ve gotta put in the work.' We need to vote, we need to get out here and have actions, and really make a change. We can’t do it by ourselves.

Through his music, his job at Harrisonburg High School, and the organization he's working to start, to provide scholarships to students like him who've had a hard road to college, Thomas's goal is always –

THOMAS: Empower and cultivate people to use their artistic outlets to bring change and awareness. So for me, you know, my Dad was killed when I was five, and I grew up in a rough city. Even though that happened, I never let it, made it an excuse. I don’t hate cops, I don’t hate white people, you know … Most people, that would be their main excuse not to succeed, not to go to college, not to, you know, be better than their family members’ situation. So I think that’s my mission just to empower people and uplift people.

Hugh Mulzac, who performs under the name Hugh Hundo, also writes music about overcoming societal and personal struggles.

['What a Sight'...]

Mulzac said the lyrics to the song 'What a Sight' came to him all at once – he woke up one morning, wrote the whole song, and recorded it that day.

Hugh Mulzac of Harrisonburg recognizes the role that music has always played in the struggle against oppression.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

HUGH MULZAC: The emotion was there because of all the current events, you know, all the stuff that's happening. Usually when things like that happen, like, for instance, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, you know, rest in peace, there's like a tension that hangs over society. Especially American society … I feel like I need to express myself or get something off my chest or have an outlet for something.

For him, music is a way to cut through rhetoric or argument or suspicion, and speak directly to the emotional experience of oppression.

MULZAC: People are very … skeptical about things. I feel like when you hit them with the music, it's like – how people say math is the universal language, I feel like music is in that vein, too. Because when you hear the music there's no denying what it is at that point in time. You feel it, it's emotional, it's raw. When you hear Marvin Gaye, 'What's going on,' you know. Like, you feel what's happening at that point in time in history.

'What a Sight,' and other songs speaking to the Black Lives Matter movement, are both a living artifact of this time in history and integral to the struggle itself.

MULZAC: The music has always played a part in the struggle against oppression, even down to slave hymns … it's always been a part of the movement. I feel like the music is something that drives people forward. It keeps people going and it creates this desire to be creative and artistic, you know? And I feel like that helps to propel the movement.