On Halifax Mall, the great expanse of subdivided lawn that stretches in downtown Raleigh between a cluster of government buildings, the grass is now brittle and brown.
But this summer, the scene on Halifax Mall was hot, bright and green. For weeks, hundreds and eventually thousands of protesters filled sections of that lawn. Standing for hours in the early evening heat, they listened to political organizers and everyday citizens who felt uniformly betrayed—by the conservative legislators meeting inside an adjacent air-conditioned building, by the governor possibly in his mansion a block away, by any of his well-pursed advisers. As the speeches continued, protesters would march into the legislative building, sing songs in the gallery and be carted to jail in stiflingly hot school buses before the sun had set.
These Moral Monday protests drew national attention, helping to counterbalance the op-eds that panned the state's acute regression and the comedians taking shots at the same. They spawned a band, too, or at least a collective of area musicians known as the NC Music Love Army. The brainchild of Raleigh singer-songwriter Caitlin Cary and Charlotte bandleader Jon Lindsay, the Love Army went from an idle idea between the two to a proper outfit leading a crowd of thousands in a sing-along at a Moral Monday within a matter of weeks. The music was urgent and of the moment, a cry for help set to major chords.
And now, nearly four months after the legislature closed its 2013 session and the last Moral Monday covered the grass at Halifax Mall, the Love Army's songs have become a proper, purchasable soundtrack to the summer—the 10-song set We Are Not for Sale: Songs of Protest. But these 30 minutes of music, Cary says, are intended as a starting point for the Love Army, not an end result. Where it actually goes from here, though, and how it gets there remain difficult and tantalizing questions.
We Are Not for Sale is separated into two contrasting sides: The first half features five tunes largely recorded as a group on one weekend in the Raleigh studio of producer Greg Elkins. Each number employs a militia of collaborators, seamlessly trading verses or bursting into choruses with enough voices to suggest a small tent revival. Nearly two dozen people sing on Jon Lindsay's excoriating gospel tune, "Is This Here What Jesus Would Do?" Django Haskins first issued the opening title track on YouTube, reaching forward to adjust his own video camera before singing and strumming the song alone in his Durham living room. On record, he again plays acoustic guitar and takes the opening stanza, but that's the only part he delivers alone. Four other singers finish the verses, and a choir drifts in to lift every chorus. It's a side of solidarity, crafted in the spirit of the summer's speeches.
The record's second half, however, was recorded in sessions scattered from the Triangle to the Triad. Its five songs favor a more intimate approach to protest. "We Rise" is a secular spiritual, written by Rhiannon Giddens but sung with no accompaniment by Giddens and Native American vocalists Pura Fé and Charly Lowry; it is a powerful and private confessional, like a prayer that's been recorded without anyone noticing. The only truly solo song here, Hiss Golden Messenger's "Every Knee Shall Bow," has the feeling of a late-night lament that's been fueled, lantern-like, by the day's awful headlines. Michael Taylor, the band's founder, turns the parables of the Bible against lawmakers purporting to defend it. "You don't know me/You don't know my family," he sings, words sitting still like a lingering threat. "We lift our voice and sing."
If We Are Not for Sale is going to stand as anything other than the ephemera of a particular moment in 2013, if it's going to be part of a larger movement toward our progress and not only a historical footnote, Taylor's credo—lifting the voice, singing, even if it's only you—has to be taken up by others in perpetuity. Figuring out how to do that without the momentum of Moral Mondays is the Love Army's looming struggle.
As far as debut albums go, the turnaround time for We Are Not for Sale was astoundingly fast; the Love Army went from conception to delivery in about five months. But as far as news stories go, the wave of Moral Monday protests and the music that accompanied it is already an expired item, at least until the legislature reconvenes in Raleigh in May. Cary hopes that, by that point, someone else has taken the lead for the Love Army, as she and Lindsay have lived and breathed its organization and development since June. That singular responsibility is not sustainable, she says, but she hopes the sentiment behind it—the invective and the inspiration—is.
"This project doesn't belong to me and Jon. It can grow in an organic way out of the work that everyone has put into it," she says. "It's not possible for Jon and I to work as hard as we have worked for the next one year or five years or 10 years, until things get better. But I hope that the name will catch, that the idea will catch, that the songs will go out and do work themselves."
That is the subtle but important implication of the two-sided division of We Are Not for Sale; these songs can work in large group settings, where everyone is singing what they hope becomes common knowledge, or they can be worried, solitary affairs, like Taylor's quiet reflection on faith and family. The idea is open-source, then; We Are Not for Sale works best when considered as a blueprint, a small set of plans that can be replicated or remodeled by anyone who feels compelled to try.
That shouldn't be an issue: Despite the number of musicians who worked on We Are Not for Sale, the bigger story here—and the organization's way forward, it seems—is what's missing. There are egregious gaps in talent and missing voices. The credits read largely like a constellation of the Triangle's roots-rock universe, with Cary and Chris Stamey, Lynn Blakey and Jason Kutchma, John Teer and B.J. Barham. Stu McLamb of The Love Language contributes harmonies, but alongside The Old Ceremony's Haskins, he's something of a lone statesman for the state's more popular indie rock bands—otherwise, there's no Superchunk nor Mountain Goats, no Megafaun nor Mount Moriah. There's nothing experimental or abrasive, nothing that would feel entirely out of place in the background of a holiday dinner party. Taken as protest music, the record acknowledges Woody Guthrie more than Public Enemy. If this is a starting point, then, potential next steps seem manifold and manifest.
The most aggressive and inclusive moment actually comes at the end, when Dasan Ahanu and Shirlette Ammons trade verses over a distorted electric guitar during "Get Free." Ammons adds heated verses during "My Body Politic," too, attempting to push the hands of old white men away from reproductive rights issues. These contributions keep We Are Not for Sale from slipping squarely into an Americana comfort zone, but for Ammons, they're not enough.
She's quick to point out that she and Ahanu are African-American outliers on this collection and that both Latinos and most every other ethnic group go unrepresented. Despite its stronghold in the Triangle music scene and its own political battles in the state, the queer community is strangely silent here, save for Ammons' own dual rap turns.
"These are not the only musicians in the area who have a voice and the ability to speak out. It's just a collection of musicians who know each other and are putting out another moment in the tradition of protest music," she says. "I'm a firm believer that there is no movement in history that doesn't have a musical component. I hope people understand that and contribute."
Indeed, if the Love Army's work is to remain as more than a memory when the grass on Halifax Mall turns green again, they must.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Marching orders."