OnRaé LaTeal’s Freedom Songs

Music producer and videographer OnRaé LaTeal remixes freedom songs and liberation chants to inspire action in the movement for Black lives. In August, LaTeal brought dancers to Black Lives Matter Plaza to make the video Freedomside. LaTeal told us how she turned Freedomside into a fight song for the movement:

“The Freedomside chant was initially recorded for my previous project, The Black Joy Experience (BJE). I produced the album in partnership with the Black youth national member-based organization, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100). The chant recording features BYP 100’s founding National Director, Charlene Carruthers and a few of her comrades from the organization. The original recording was featured on the BJE album a capella but I didn’t feel that it’s energy was reflective of what was taking place in the world following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. So I decided to transform it into a fight song by producing a contemporary trap beat. My desire was to support my comrades who were serving our city on the front lines by providing them with a song that helped to galvanize them when headed to the streets.” 

OnRaé LaTeal during the Freedomside video recording. ©Miki Jourdan

LaTeal explained how the team for the video came together:

“Charlene is based in Chicago, but she just so happened to be making a visit to DC for a few demonstrations. So we were able to connect so that she could be featured in the music video. I knew that I wanted the music video to be a celebration of activist groups in DC, so I called upon a few of my favorite orgs, The Palm Collective, Black Youth Project’s DC Chapter, Freedom Fighters DC and Girls Rock! DC. Most importantly, I also knew that I needed an element in the video that would match the track’s energy so I connected with three local dancers, Nya Cunningham, Naiya Speight-Leggett and Boujee Da Doll. These three were so captivating on camera and really helped to bring magic to the music video. “

Charlene Carruthers performing Freedomside in Black Lives Matter Plaza. ©Miki Jourdan

Freedomside is based on the protest song “Which Side Are You On?”. The song has a long and storied history in protest movements. Originally written by Florence Reese in the 1930s in support of striking coal minders in Harlan County, Kentucky, it has been taken up and repurposed by activists ever since. Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers re-recorded it in the ‘40s, again to promote labor rights.

In the early ’60s, The Freedom Singers, a group formed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, adapted the song for the cause of Civil Rights, singing:

Come all you negro people
Lift up your voices and sing
Will you join the Ku Klux Klan
Or Martin Luther King?

In 2012, Ani DiFranco recast the song as a feminist anthem. She sang:

my mother was a feminist
she taught me to see
that the road to ruin is paved
with patriarchy

Singer Billy Bragg, who recorded his own version to recount the British Miners’ Strike of the mid-1980s, explained the song’s enduring appeal: “‘It is such a simple song,’ he said, likening it to ‘We Shall Overcome’ in being ‘easy to adapt to whatever your cause is. That’s the reason it has prevailed over the years.’”

In LaTeal’s version the updated lyrics, sung by Carruthers, name check Marsha P. Johnson, a Black gay rights activist who played a prominent role in the Stonewall uprising of 1969:

Marsha P. Johnson was a freedom fighter
And she taught us how to fight

Charlene Carruthers during the filming of Freedomside. ©Miki Jourdan

The completed fight song is now available on YouTube…

What’s next for LaTeal:

“Shortly after releasing the liberation music video for Freedomside, I received a fellowship with one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, Open Society Foundations (OSF). Through the fellowship, I’ve been able to pilot Freedom Futures Collective (FFC), a multimedia group of artist activists using film, music and education to support the movement for ALL Black lives. Currently, the collective includes 13 members who are working collaboratively to produce a visual album exploring the reimagining of public safety, police reform and police abolition. I’ve recruited some amazing filmmakers, artist educators, music producers and lyricists, and we’re teaming up to show the world how the power of art can be used as a necessary tool for social change. 

“The album,
We Keep Us Safe will include my new track, Freedomside, and several other original freedom songs from collective members that will be transformed into music videos. We Keep Us Safe will also include short films highlighting some of the city’s most dynamic activist groups and abolitionists. FFC will release our visual album on December 18th through a virtual watch party sponsored by Eaton DC. My hope is to continue our efforts by receiving funding for future projects.”

For more on OnRaé LaTeal, check out her website and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

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