By AnnMarie Barenchi
BU News Service
BOSTON – When Maria Landi took the stage, the audience seemed to stop breathing. Alone behind a jet-black piano, she recounted a woman’s experience with sexual assault, reaching out a knowing hand.
“How can you forget when the wind feels like your breath against your neck?” she sang of haunting memories. “You think no one will know you’ve been through battles and you’ve lived.”
Finally, she sang the title words to her song: “But we know. We know.”
When the last chord faded from the keys, applause found the company of the careful wiping of tears on sleeves.
The songs performed at Berklee College of Music’s Red Room at the Songs for Social Change showcase on April 9 filled the room with more than just music. Each one had a message to convey.
End gun violence. Unlearn racism. Me too.
No topic is off limits in Songs for Social Change (S4SC), an annual songwriting contest and showcase at Berklee. Students are encouraged to “write new songs expressing their convictions about social issues of concern to them,” according to the guidelines. Each year, three winners and a number of finalists are invited to perform in a showcase.
Mark Simos, a S4SC facilitator and associate professor of songwriting at Berklee, said that because the contest is open-themed, there are often clusters of songs dealing with the same issues. This year was no different.
After the rise of the #MeToo movement and growing frustrations on Berklee’s campus over a persisting rape culture, there were so many entries dealing with the topic that two songs earned third place, each taking their own path into the subject.
Sharing the prize with Landi’s heart wrenching piano balled, Jenni Rudolph and Makayla Colonello challenged victim blaming and double standards in the funk-infused, dance-inducing pop song, “(Blame It On The) Black Dress.”
“Whether you’re sober or not, they’re calling the shots. It’s nothing but a one way street,” Rudolph sang, eyebrows raised as she bounced around the stage she shared with an all-female band. “They’ll blame it on you.”
“That’s one of the things that’s so wonderful to see in the showcase is how different writers will approach the same theme from radically different directions,” Simos said.
In light of the Parkland shooting in February, many students also wrote songs about gun violence.
“Don’t pray for me, we need action,” Samantha Hozven wailed, anger seeping from pounded piano keys. “Don’t pray for me, we need change.”
At the end of the showcase, Berklee freshman and first place winner Salem Davern aired similar frustrations in “Awake,” a bluesy pop song she wrote “to the politicians lining their pockets with money from the NRA,” she said.
“Do you feel bad?” she asked them over and over.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘How did our country let this happen?'” she said. “I went through thoughts of sadness, anger and pure confusion.”
Davern said she uses songwriting as a way to cope with things, big or small. Once she has written about it, she said, she can assess and understand the situation.
“Songwriting has always been my way of expressing deep emotion and getting my point across to others,” she said, expressing hope that her song helps keep the movement alive. “All an artist can hope for is that the music they create will make a positive impact, and that is truly my goal.”
But no matter how a writer approaches a topic, Simos said writing songs that invoke positive social change is the hardest kind of songwriting he knows. However, he noted that it is an important challenge to take on, especially right now.
“The state of the country and the state of the world is such that a lot of our ordinary mechanisms for dialogue are breaking down,” he said. “I don’t think every issue can be necessarily described in detail in a song, but I think there are things that songs can get us to think and feel that you can’t really get in any other way.”
Throughout American history there have been “moments where music does seem to be doing things that either politicians or others have seemed unable to entirely voice, or speak out at a time when others seem silent,” said Boston University professor Eric Jarvis, who has been teaching a course on music and civil rights for the past few years.
Whether it was Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” that helped bring light to the reality of lynching or the freedom songs of Nina Simone that created a sense of unity and bolstered spirits during protests in the 1960s, “there are moments and figures along that way who I think we associate powerfully with musical activism,” Jarvis said.
But the unique influence of songs spans far beyond America’s borders. Christiane Karam, associate professor of voice at Berklee and S4SC facilitator, said she felt it while growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 70s and 80s.
“What was very moving for me then was to hear songs written and sung by people who were not stuck in a war zone who were writing about people who were,” Karam said. “I believe that made a life-or-death difference for me in terms of the hope that it gave me.”
Karam said that even at a young age, she began to ask herself what would have happened if those songwriters had never written those songs.
“That gave me a very deep sense of responsibility we had as artists to use our voices in ways that could change lives,” she said, remembering traveling to piano lessons with her mother in Beirut, even when it wasn’t always safe.
Karam has since centered her musical projects — whether working as a performer, writer or producer — around creating connection, facilitating dialogue and garnering hope, so when she started teaching at Berklee a decade ago, she became a part of S4SC.
“In all those different capacities … what brought the project to life was always this sense that we can do something with music that is bigger than just the aesthetic of it,” Karam said.
Dominique “Dom” Jones, a junior at Berklee from Oakland, California, has been participating in S4SC since her freshman year. That first year, she auditioned for showcase after showcase, but was turned down each time.
Jones said she had always been writing songs about large social issues, even before she came to Berklee.
“Social justice comes up a lot because that’s my life,” Jones said. “Being a woman, being a black person, it’s just inevitable I’m going to be touched by social issues.”
So when she discovered S4SC, she knew she had to enter the contest. Though she didn’t place that year, she was invited to perform in the showcase. Then last year, she earned third.
“It was a pretty wild experience and it also reinforced this idea in my mind that a really important facet of the way I make music is to address these topics,” Jones said. “It was like ‘This is the first time someone has said yes to you at Berklee, was for this kind of music that you make, so really take that seriously.’”
Now, she said she is always planning for the next year.
“It just became one of the anchors of my experience at Berklee, to always be a part of that competition,” she said.
As she stood on the Red Room stage earlier this month, sporting a “Wakanda Forever” t-shirt and accompanied by only an electric guitar, Jones relayed snapshots of forgotten faces in her home city and asked big questions about global citizenship in her second place song, “Grace.”
“How can he continue to contribute to the genocide, questioning the systematic imprisonment of his mind?” she rapped toward the end of the song. “Every week he’s compromising 40 hours of his life is spent enriching men who don’t care if he’s living or he’s dying.”
Though Jones said she is “gunning for first place” in her senior year, S4SC is more than just a contest.
“I think Songs for Social Change is super important because it gives students a chance to step back from trying to be so technically proficient and actually think about how we as artists can be change makers,” Jones said. “Maybe you won’t sell out Madison Square Garden, but maybe you’ll save somebody’s life.”