Vote, Take Action, Sing Loudly Together
Tift Merritt (photo by Alexandra Valenti)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt is producing and hosting Sing Out NC, an election-time concert outside Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina, on Nov. 6 advocating for reproductive rights and featuring local artists including Alice Gerrard, Rissi Palmer, H.C. McEntire, Mipso’s Libby Rodenbough, and many more. Proceeds from the show will go to organizations working to protect abortion access in the state.
In the avalanche of terrible news in which we find ourselves, I’ve been searching for how I might best use my voice to work on behalf of care and compassion to effect positive change. Music is more than just a commercial commodity — it’s a healing ritual, a form of loving, a spiritual practice to which people have dedicated their lives for generations. My daughter, my center of everything, made it clear to me that life at the speed of commercial touring was not how we would spend our scant time together. In the stillness post-tour, I am struck, over time, by how often the bubble of commercial music is out of alignment with my values and with what I love about music. The world catching fire branch by branch around me asks imperatively more from me than appearing cool to strangers on Instagram. How might I use my voice in service, in kindness, to comfort, to love and care?
I learned about the term care work — and the ethics of care — from the archivists and scholars at the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and the NC State Archives. I was lucky to get schooled by them participating in an archival collective of care whose work runs on principles of radical empathy grounded in non-hierarchical structures, budget transparency and morality, the affirmation of multiple ways of knowing, and question-driven inquiry that leads with values rather than outcomes. And as we built a collaborative practice, we also forged deep friendships and an ethic of care for each other. I was soon dreaming up how to pilot a new kind of band — a care-minded singing circle, a framework to promote equity and loving change in an industry that has historically worked against it. Could a performance collective make positive change through community building and storytelling about things that need attention? Could we model a way for women participating in the music industry to support each other where the male-dominated music industry has failed us?
It was unthinkable to me that Roe fell, but it shouldn’t have been. I wasn’t sure what to do with what I felt inside. Leave the country, take to the streets, volunteer, go numb, stick my head in the sand to keep daily life glued and get dinner on the table? Countless times a week, after looking at the news, I run again through those choices and come up without an answer. But in the days following Kansas’ vote to maintain reproductive freedoms and bodily autonomy in its constitution, I found a small fortune cookie in my mind: If Kansas can do it, North Carolina can too. We’d better try a singing circle right now, I thought. Reproductive rights are on the ballot in November in North Carolina, with national consequences, and we need to sing out something fierce about it.
Frank Heath at the legendary Cat’s Cradle mentioned a concert outside; Tara Romano, executive director at Pro-Choice North Carolina, returned a cold-call email and took a leap of faith. We decided, in our first few conversations, that we just wanted to do our best to highlight the critical election. Maybe we could reach young women, or people who were disillusioned with Democrats or people who felt that the system was broken and their vote didn’t mean anything. I called a few friends about an idea for an education campaign and an election-time concert — Shana Tucker, Rissi Palmer, and HC McEntire, people I had always wanted to spend more time with and make noise. Their affirmation that we had a good idea kept me going. The band began to grow: Tara started to build a coalition of organizations working on behalf of health, social, and reproductive freedoms. Kym Register, Kamara Thomas, and Libby Rodenbough of Mipso raised their hands. Alice Gerrard, our spiritual foremother, joined the circle, as did friends, musicians, activists, community organizers, visual artists, T-shirt makers, printers, auction donors, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers — all rising to the occasion to support.
I don’t like to do things fast, but we didn’t have much of a choice to raise a tent before the election. I’ve learned a lot running on that fly, like how North Carolina is one of the last states in the Southeast with abortion access due to the hard work of advocates and changes in political leadership and how banning abortion nationwide would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths. How by the age of 45, one in four women has had an abortion, and, most importantly, that the people most affected by attacks on reproductive freedoms already face so many barriers to all health care, including abortion —including women, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, those working to make ends meet, LGBTQ+ people, young people, immigrant communities, people in rural communities, and people with disabilities. I’ve learned that Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, North Carolina Supreme Court judges, a US Senate seat, and a handful of toss-up seats in the state legislature are about all that stand between us and significant rollbacks in reproductive freedoms in this state.
Most of all, I’ve learned that there is an entire ecosystem of rights connected to ensuring bodily autonomy for all, and it isn’t just about reproductive health care. It’s also about protecting voting rights, so our elected bodies reflect our values and communities. It’s about advancing racial justice so we aren’t leaving behind communities that have been systematically excluded from our society. It’s about gender equality and not allowing misogynistic and transphobic attitudes and beliefs to dictate our access to essential health care, the right to control our bodies and sexualities, and our ability to create the loving families that we desire.
My hope is that we can use what we’ve learned and learn even more as we replicate this template-in-learning. Asking people into the circle is not about a heavy lift but about coming together to carry the weight. Before the show on Sunday, the organizations involved are going to educate us — the musicians — about what they do, and I can promise you I’m already overwhelmed by the nuances of working for social justice and how hard the people pushing that stone work in every election. Can a performance collective make positive change through community building and storytelling about things that need attention right now? I hope so. I hope we can make change by looking outside our silos and talking about how much good work is being done in the world and how much there is left to do. I know we can sing in a little comfort and remind each other that we are all in this together for the long haul. Maybe that’s not much, but it is something.
All the musicians on this bill want their fans to know what is at stake in this election. In the words of my friend Tara Romano, it is going to take VOTING and ACTION from all of us to protect abortion access in North Carolina. There is an ecosystem of rights connected to bodily autonomy, and we need to raise awareness about all of them. Music can amplify stories that need to be told, so let’s all join in loudly.
Finding an adequate response to the unceasing events of the world at present — creatively, practically, daily — is an overwhelming task. But shining our shared lights on the issues at hand as well as each other is a place to start, to make not only a loving noise but a loving path forward.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. Visit vote.org for more information.