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Moral Mondays, Paper Planes, and the Pursuit of Happiness

I watched streaming video of the Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, North Carolina, for several weeks in 2013 before I attended one. You see, my skin is brown, my last name contains a Spanish diacritical mark, and I’d been unemployed for seven months. I felt too vulnerable for protesting, especially the sort that might land you in jail. I have long since become accustomed to suspicious glances and odd questions from police officers and security personnel of all stripes; the last thing I needed was to tell a potential employer that, yes, I had been arrested in the last three years. Once I learned that protestors were being taken into custody mostly by choice, I felt far more secure in my ability to raise my own voice along with thousands of other disgusted and disaffected citizens. I attended my first Moral Monday on 8 July.

As impressive as the Moral Monday events were online, the experience of being at one is difficult to encapsulate. The sheer variety of people was confounding. They were people of every ethnic background, faith tradition, and gender identity, and they ranged in age from young children to senior citizens. I thought that such broadly-appealing and well-organized protests happened only in far-flung places in the news, like Syria or Wisconsin. To me, hearing thousands of voices chant “Forward together, not one step back,” on a weekly basis was inspiring and addictive. When I shared those words with so many, there was a powerful sense of fellow feeling and community. Everyone there was a stranger to me, and yet I felt completely supported by the united voices.

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By the end of July, and with it, the 2013 session, I felt energized, and planned to go again regularly whenever Moral Mondays resumed. In the meantime, I got a job as a freelance writer and joined another diverse and vocal community that also met on Mondays, this one in Durham. PopUp Chorus started meeting at Motorco Music Hall in January. I didn’t make the time to attend this no-commitment, no-pressure community chorus project until once again, I found myself in need of comfort and support, as well as sufficiently solvent to afford the five-dollar cover charge.

In early April, at my first PopUp event, I found myself, along with a bleacher full of people in a bar, most of whom I’d never met, turning Vampire Weekend’s “Ya Hey” into what comes across as a hymn of thanksgiving. Once again, I found myself almost physically cradled by a community of voices in unison. When the song ended, I erupted into laughter. I laughed instinctively, having no other way to express the unabashed joy coursing through me. I laughed because a group of friends, not-yet-friends, and complete strangers created something beautiful.

To my mind, PopUp Chorus is its own fusion movement, one dedicated simply to building community and having fun. Surely those goals are just as worth pursuing vigorously as our political and civic ones; I’ve found they constitute a large portion of the “happiness” included among the accepted list of our inalienable rights.

When I learned the first major Moral Monday protest of the 2014 legislative session was at roughly the same time as choir practice on 19 May, I chose to be present for the spring finale of PopUp Chorus. It seemed especially important I should be in Durham on 19 May in light of recent Moral Monday developments in Raleigh. No sooner did the legislature convene late last week, than they changed rules pertaining to conduct in the state Legislative Building. The new rules are meant to eliminate “disturbances” while the legislature is meeting. These new rules are, the legislature claims, not a response to the Moral Monday movement, but it does seem a coincidence that it’s only now that conduct rules have been revised, when the old ones had been gathering dust for 30 years. Not content to limit North Carolina citizens’ access to the polls with an insane voter ID scheme, it seems, the legislature now sought to silence the voices of dissent — the very voices which lifted me up a year ago.

As protestors marched into the Legislative Building in Raleigh with tape over their mouths — a protest within a protest — over in Durham, the PopUp Chorus, now grown to 125 members, was learning to sing M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” (2007). Many of the participants were familiar with the song, and everyone else picked it up as they went along. We had to figure things out on the fly, like developing an intro, recreating the song’s integral sound effects, and how best to deploy the huge number of voices at different points in the song. The results of these efforts never fail to surprise, delight, and inspire me, kind of like how I imagine a functioning democracy might.



After we finished, I spoke to a gentleman for whom this was his second experience with the chorus. He told me that he was going to start saving five dollars, whenever he had it to spare, in an envelope. When the PopUp Chorus resumes its project regularly in September, he would be sure to have enough to afford the weekly cover. In my experience, people who make those kinds of deals with themselves do so because they recognize the value of the sacrifice. People go to choir practice for any number of reasons, but I know for some, including myself, it is a place of safety and wonder. The legislature seems to want to silence us.  But on Monday nights, Motorco’s showroom is a space where every voice matters.

On the way home from choir practice that night, I was elated by our adaptability, cooperative spirit, and by the general feeling of contentment with the results. As much as “Ya Hey” at my first PopUp event felt like a hymn of thanksgiving in adversity, “Paper Planes” feels like a paean in anticipation of triumph. I read many articles about the M.I.A. tune that night. Every time I saw a mention of its purported power to engage issues of economic inequality and give voice to underrepresented populations, I thought about the protestors walking in silence through the statehouse in Raleigh.

That’s what singing “Paper Planes” with Durham’s PopUp Chorus has come to signify to me since Monday. It was my in abensentia contribution and tribute to the return of Moral Mondays. It was claiming the voice that Moral Mondays is fighting for.  It was raising that voice in song.

I speak only for myself, and no one else in the choir, but I was moved when I first saw the video of our performance of “Paper Planes” on Tuesday.  In under an hour, a large gathering of people in a local bar somehow turned a wry hip-hop dance track, ostensibly about drug dealing, theft, and homicide, into a joyous choral anthem.

Conditions are pretty bleak on the local and state levels in North Carolina — for everyone from the unemployed to beginning farmers, and regarding issues that range from access to reproductive health care to fracking.  I am not the only one here who is vulnerable. But I love this state. And I’ve found that the more often I make the time to meet its people in simple fellowship, the more fully I appreciate the risks and potential rewards of fusion movements, whether their voices ring out in protest, in song, or in the joy that is a combination of both.


Melvin Peña: Is here to help.

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