If the world was not in the midst of a pandemic, Luci Murphy would be in the streets every day, leading Black Lives Matter activists through “Ella’s Song,” the Bernice Johnson Reagon classic containing this verse: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes/ until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons/ is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.”
Instead, the 69-year-old singer — she refers to herself as “an interpreter” — who has demonstrated in Cuba, Iraq and her hometown of Washington, D.C., and who worked alongside protest singers Pete Seeger and Hazel Dickens, has had to limit her participation in demonstrations and protests to just two or three days a week. Before the coronavirus descended upon the United States, her job as a song leader involved working, often shoulder-to-shoulder, with large public groups. Now she is careful to don a mask and stay six feet away from her fellow activists. Like everyone else working from home, she also spends quite a bit of time fighting the good fight, she says, “on these doggone Zoom calls.”
Murphy, a familiar figure at D.C.-area protests in her distinctive mohawk-pompadour, divides her time among a variety of groups and causes. She sang for prison abolition as part of the D.C. Labor Chorus last year, and she is helping a Bethesda, Maryland, coalition defend a historic African-American cemetery from being excavated for a construction project. She is best known, however, for her work with the People’s Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle, where she is on the steering committee. The 43-year-old group of protest singers whose most renowned member was the late folk legend Seeger — “I actually stayed at his home in the ’70s,” Murphy says — gather regularly (lately via video conferences) to play songs they’ve written, work on songcraft and get feedback. When the time comes to march or rally, members break out their songs to provide an activist soundtrack.
Murphy attended Federal City College, in Washington, where the late jazz and rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron taught creative writing; they spoke during class registration. She attended the same radical Episcopal church, St. Stephen and the Incarnation, as Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye when he was a toddler. “His dad edited the religion page in The Washington Post,” she says, “and his mom was a jolly soul raising a house full of children.”
Murphy’s progressive causes are wide-ranging: She says homelessness “damages the whole fabric of society” and supports Minnesota Congresswoman Ilyan Omar’s Homes for All. She credits groups like the Coalition of Concerned Mothers for drawing attention to police-violence victims.
Over the last four years, as the Trump Administration has pushed to dismantle protections for immigrants and the LGBTQ community and undercut regulations protecting the environment, healthcare and women’s abortion rights, the People’s Music Network’s role is more important than ever. Its 38-year-old executive director, Ben Grosscup, has led singalongs at protests against racism and inhumane border detentions. It may not be possible to draw a direct line between the Network’s musical activism and measurable change, but Murphy says, “We have enough notorious people that it adds a little weight” to demonstrations and protests.
Murphy says demand for her work has surged, from “an occasional invitation maybe once a month” to nearly once every week. And while Network membership has increased, especially since the pandemic pushed its activity from regional live events to global livestreams, the group has struggled to attract young members and people of color.
In 1977, Songs of Freedom and Struggle was a disjointed group of mostly white musicians and activists who met in woodsy locations throughout New York and New England. Murphy, who is African American, had friends who attended and questioned why she wouldn’t join them. “Finally, I said, ‘Black people aren’t going to a strange place in the woods that they don’t know!’” she recalls. Murphy redirected the group to cities where Black members “won’t fear the Klan or some other kind of vigilante group coming out of the trees.”
Over the next few years, as student and community groups united to overthrow dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, end apartheid in South Africa, oppose the shah in Iran and demand a U.S. holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., Murphy joined groups that took over churches and other neighborhood buildings, and the activity coalesced into the People’s Music Network. The two groups eventually merged.
She had originally studied to be a doctor, then dropped out of medical school and, while living with a musician, turned to music. Her early duo, Luci & Vgo, pressed 500 copies of an album — hardly enough to compete with Mahalia Jackson or Bob Dylan. She soon shifted her focus to singing during demonstrations. At first, in the late ’60s, protest music was everywhere, but the scene dwindled in the ’80s and ’90s. By 2002, she was working as a medical interpreter, translating for Spanish-speaking patients. She stopped in 2016. “Before then, there were a lot of temp jobs,” she says.
The federal government’s botched handling of the pandemic coupled with the deaths of George Floyd and Breyonna Taylor at the hands of police officers; the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men in South Georgia; and the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in response, have changed that. Membership in the People’s Music Network has increased 52 percent from 173 in mid-March to 263 in mid-June. “Members active with us in the ’70s and ’80s have reconnected, and others who’ve never protested in their lives are looking for a way to connect with other people,” Grosscup says.
Most of the Network’s regular gatherings involve folk singers with guitars that are livestreamed on Facebook Live or Zoom. The group marked International Workers Day last month with a “Labor Produces all the Work” event and did a tribute to the late, occasionally political singer-songwriter John Prine. During a recent gathering, a dozen members told achingly personal stories and shared songs they’d recently written, a number of them tied to the pandemic. One woman blurted out, “My friend died yesterday and she brought the rain,” before singing “She Delivers” in honor of food-delivery frontline workers. Another songwriter, looking very Pete Seeger in his white beard and cowboy hat, sang a poignant a cappella ballad about “a woman in a white linen lab coat, sweating with fever and gasping for air.”
But even as the recent wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations have suggested a widespread need for protest songs — and hip-hop stars such as Lil Baby (“The Bigger Picture”) and Juicy J (“Hella F—in Trauma)” have stepped up to deliver them — the PMN has struggled to bring in younger members as well as people of color. During a community Zoom earlier this month, one member asked how the group explained “the much lower turnout” of members” who weren’t “our traditional membership of older white people?” Another added that while the group does draw younger, more diverse musicians and their fans, they aren’t joining as members. Perhaps, others there wondered, the Network’s $40 annual fee is too steep.
“It is an ongoing challenge,” says Murphy. “To get young people, and people of color, you’ve got to ask them over and over again — which is a total contrast from trying to get white, male singer-songwriters, because they find out about stuff and show up. People have to be coaxed and cajoled and have to get over all the rejection they’ve received.”
Grosscup has been working to modernize the PMN’s membership and image of white folkies strumming acoustic guitars. To that end, Dilson Hernandez, 26, a spoken-word performer, activist and PMN member, is putting on a hip-hop event on the evening of June 26 called Artists Against Racial Oppression.
“To be honest, People’s Music Network people don’t really know too much about hip-hop,” says Hernandez, who plans to open the event with a version of Lauryn Hill’s “Freedom Time.” “I just assumed people would stick to their folk songs and labor protest songs, but it’s great to see them want to collaborate and learn, and just be students, really.”
Murphy also hosted a Facebook Live event last month called “An Evening of Nueva Canción,” a reference to the Latin American and Spanish social movement of folk songs devoted to working people and human rights. At one point, a Washington duo called Wayta decamped to the roof so they could perform without being too close to their social-distancing housemates. “I had to ask a lot of people,” Murphy says of the event. “A lot of people turned me down, but I have a long history of solidarity with Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile — situations in which the U.S. has armed the opposition and just created chaos and havoc.”
Murphy’s first flash of activism came in fifth grade, when her teachers made girls stay inside during a recreation period while boys played on the playground. Her protest petition succeeded. “The teacher was actually amused!” Murphy says. “She was a progressive teacher. It just hadn’t occurred to her that girls might want to do sports, too.”
Grosscup says Murphy “challenges us to challenge that egocentric focus on ourselves as artists and to embrace our political role as servants to the people.”
Murphy functions as more of a singer and conductor at PMN gatherings, focusing crowds of demonstrators via inspirational call-and-response choruses. She doesn’t play the guitar — “I was able to pay for some lessons, but then the guitar was stolen and I lost my job and couldn’t replace it,” she says. “The last few demonstrations have been a cappella, although she says, “It’s nice when people come out with congas or the paint-bucket drums.”
While the Black Lives Matter protests have prompted some corporations, governments and even police departments to make changes, Murphy says she’s skeptical that permanent systemic change will result. “It’s interesting that Amazon hangs out a sign and some officer of the law takes a kneeling position, but we should not be fooled by any of that,” she says. “The young people — and us older people — we need to keep at it.”