Anatomy of an Anthem

A protest song emerges in the solemn aftermath of violence.
Writer: 
August 8, 2016

As songwriters, we try to write about the subjects that matter to us. In the early months of 2015, no social issue was more regularly consuming my mind and dominating the conversations within my band, Delta Rae, than the deadly violence against unarmed black Americans taking place in Ferguson, New York, Chicago, and other cities across the United States. Like many others, I was discovering the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates and his articles on the systemic oppression of people of color by way of U.S. housing policy and the penal system. We were following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and felt confronted by our own place within the racial divide. I wanted to write something to address this long-standing, seemingly intractable illness in our country, but I also felt incredibly intimidated by the subject. What could six white, privileged adults have to offer?

But the sense of needing to speak out wouldn’t go away. So I decided we had to embrace our perspective and offer what we had: solidarity and a voice to add to the chorus of Americans demanding change. I started crafting a song—not knowing at first that it would become a protest song, but letting the rawest personal emotions and guilt I felt lay bare. Singing around my apartment—writing nothing down, but cycling through new ideas and seeing what stuck—the first lyrics emerged, a reflection on the words of Edward Burke and the 1964 public murder of Kitty Genovese in New York: 

I watched from my window

As they gunned down unarmed men

Tried to say it’s not my problem

Couldn’t happen to my friends

But the truth is they’re my brothers

And they’re my countrymen

And if we lose our better angels

We won’t get them back again

From there the door felt open, but I wasn’t sure where to go. One of my chief concerns was to avoid preaching. As the message of the song escalated, I wasn't sure how to express a sense of unity, rather than sounding condescending or scornful. In keeping with our usual writing process, I brought this early sketch to the band and enlisted my brother Eric for help finishing the song. The next day, he brought in a melody and lyrics:

All good people won’t you come around

Won’t you come around, defend your brothers

All good people, won’t you come around

Won’t you come around, hold up each other 

I loved the sentiment, but the transition felt jarring. The song still needed a core of compassion and urgency, an uplifting heartbeat to tie the storytelling of the verse to the desperate plea of Eric’s bridge. The songwriter’s chief power is seduction, to bring an audience in with melody and poetry, and I wanted to maximize that power before we asked anything of the listener. I kept singing the little scraps of the song in the following days, and what emerged to bind the parts was a gospel, spiritual melody, laced with the words of Eric Garner, one of the victims whose death was captured on camera in New York:

Come on and raise your voice

Above the raging seas

We can’t hold our breath forever

When our brothers cannot breathe 

The day after we finished this version of the song and recorded a rough demo in our Raleigh studio, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine black men and women who had welcomed him into their house of worship, then escaped into North Carolina where he was apprehended. Delta Rae convened that day to rehearse and record in our studio, but when we saw each other we couldn’t work at all. There was so much anger and sadness in the room. We felt we had to say something, given the scale of the evil that had occurred and its proximity to our beloved home state.

We released the song that day with a statement encouraging our leaders to act. “All good people must raise their voices,” we wrote. “After yesterday’s violence and the calls from James Clyburn and other leaders to break our silence, we felt we could no longer wait to express our outrage, sadness, and insistence that things must change.”

In the months that followed, my brother was inspired to write a final verse: 

Well I’ve lived outside Atlanta

In Durham and Nashville

I’ve spent years in California

In the valleys and the hills

And we say we’ve fixed the problem

Yeah, we all live the dream

But when shots rang out in Charleston

Tell me who are the ones that bleed.

Holljes '07 is singer/songwriter/guitarist for country-Americana band Delta Rae. When not on tour, he is at home in Raleigh with his wife, Rebecca Holljes '08, J.D. '11.