Philip Glass & Resistance Revival Chorus' Ginny Suss on the Reawakening of Protest Marches & Music

Kenneth Chou/Courtesy of The Glenn Gould Foundation
Philip Glass

If there’s one common thread running through the work of American minimalist maestro Philip Glass over the last four decades, it's the rapturous use of the human voice. So when news broke that this year’s benefit concert for the Tibet House US (which Glass co-founded in 1987 with Columbia University professor Robert Thurman and actor Richard Gere, among others) would feature the Resistance Revival Chorus, the idea of these two artists colliding on the Carnegie Hall stage was met with much excitement.

Led by onetime Roots tour manager Ginny Suss, the Resistance Revival Chorus was born out of the Women’s March on Washington in light of Trump's election; recently, they were part of this year's standout Grammy performance alongside Kesha. In addition to Glass and the Resistance Revival Chorus, the March 3 benefit will also include performances by Blood Orange, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Rhiannon Giddens, Angel Olsen, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields and music legend Carly Simon, whose inclusion was just announced last week.

Billboard recently had the privilege of sitting in on a conversation between Glass (the event's artistic director) and Suss, where they engaged in a fascinating chat about the upcoming show and addressed the importance of protest to community building and strengthening human connections, which are sometimes lost within the fibers of the Internet. 

Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Tibet House US. Get tickets here.

How’s everything going?

Philip: Things are good. We’re just getting warmed up getting ready for this big event, and I think we’re in good shape. We have a very good lineup this year; a good history. This is our 31st year that we’ve done this concert so we kinda know what we’re doing (laughs). This is gonna be a really good one. Especially for these times. I bring my kids to all the marches. I have a sixteen year old and a fourteen year old and we go out with the family. It’s a big deal in New York. But we go out and do it.

It’s great to see more teenagers becoming active in these marches.

Philip: They love it, actually. The kids really like the marches.

Ginny: I’m really excited to see what happens with the youth of today, because they are really politicized and engaged. They’re more willing to get out there and engage.

Philip: You know, Ginny, I notice something that you probably notice as well, but it’s great to see what they’re getting into in terms of music. They’re very in touch with their music. When I’m around the kids, I think I’m looking at the future, really and truly. And that part of the future looks good. It’s moving very well right now. But you know, when we have political foes in the country, that’s when the artists get moving. That’s always been the way. It was like this 60 years ago. I remember very well the McCarthy period and the Communist witch hunts and all that stuff. That’s when people like Allen Ginsberg and a whole generation of engaged people came out. Then it was like we went to sleep for a couple of decades (laughs). But it’s great to see how it’s coming back big time, don’t you think Ginny?

Ginny: I completely think so. Harry Belafonte was actually one of the co-chairs of the Women’s March that I produced. He came into our offices and told us something he had said before, that when the movement is strong, the music is strong. And I think he’s exactly right when you think of the big political movements in this country. It really reflects it.

Philip: When our social issues are being attacked and when our leaders have lost touch with the social issues, it’s almost like a force of nature the way the arts start to rebel and bring balance back to everything. I really think that’s super important and the world is engaged with that, too.

One of the most profound instances of what you are talking about is Kesha’s performance of her song “Praying” at the Grammy Awards, where Ginny and the Resistance Revival Chorus backed her up. Did you see the show, Philip?

Philip: I was on an airplane (laughs), so I didn’t get to see it. Unfortunately, that’s my life sometimes. I’m nowhere. I’m up in the air somewhere.

Ginny: When I first heard of Kesha, I think I had miscategorized her as any other, for lack of a better term, vapid pop star. You know, kinda not really singing about much of anything. But she won me over 100 percent with this song, first of all because she was brave enough to stand up against sexual violence. She was reborn out of this horrible, abusive relationship, which is something that people are filled with shame about, and she just stood up and sung about it and brought to the forefront this idea that women aren’t necessarily victims of sexual violence; they are survivors. She came out with strength, and the message of being a survivor. But also, something I think we overlook is the way she uplifted other women in music. The music landscape is a place where women are grossly underrepresented, grossly underpaid. And she created a space at the Grammys where she partnered with Andra Day and Cyndi Lauper and all these other amazing women including the Resistance Revival Chorus. It was a super diverse cast of women coming together to bring a message of unity and supporting each other and standing together.

One could say Carly Simon was a pioneer of this train of thought in terms of her approach to pop music, and it must be exciting to have her on board for this year’s benefit concert.

Philip: I was just talking to Carly the other day about this, and she wants to do “Let The River Run.” And these are songs that my generation knows pretty well, but it needs to be heard again. And she’s looking forward to singing with the Chorus on that one, actually.

Ginny: Amazing, that makes me so happy! Ahhhh! I can’t wait!

Philip: She told me to tell you to get ready! It’s gonna be a great moment, I think. It’s when we find our voices in times like this, I think, and it’s so important for our country.

Ginny: And to follow-up on what Philip just said, it’s so important when you talk about how this music is second nature for your generation and how we kinda lost our way for a while. I think that’s why we call ourselves the Resistance Revival Chorus, because we’re really trying to revive that spirit.

Philip: The name really resonates. It’s a great, great name. My kids are coming of age just at the right time at 14 and 16 to understand what the issues are and they’re very engaged.

It’s amazing to think of the history behind what Ginny has created with the Resistance Revival Chorus and the lineage of these choirs that have emerged from communities in times of protest.

Ginny: Like Sweet Honey In the Rock. I brought in Toshi Reagon to be the musical director for the Women’s March and her mother is Dr. Bernice Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey In The Rock, wrote a lot of those civil rights songs that came from gospel songs and transformed them into freedom fighter songs. And they sung them all a cappella in Sweet Honey In The Rock, so we honor them by covering a bunch of those songs and try to revitalize them back into the conversation. It’s such incredibly beautiful music with such a powerful message. We also find it of utmost importance to center women of color in the movement, so our chorus is led by amazing women of color for these songs.

It’s people music, which makes it more powerful because it was born from public gatherings and neighborhoods.

Ginny: That’s also the thing. We’ve been at all these marches and these rallies. And I talked to my parents right after the Women’s March, and my dad says to me how he felt it was so amazing that the spirit of protest and people being engaged with policy and the public and what’s going on in politics. But he said in the sixties we were always singing. And when I go to these marches, there’s a lot of chants, but there’s not a lot of singing. And it’s singing that keeps us going in a lot of these marches. I think part of the reason why we’re doing songs like covering Sweet Honey In The Rock is because that’s music which is meant to be heard. It’s from the oral tradition to be sung and learned at a march. It’s something that you can pick up and sing along with and encourage others to join in. It’s real communal.

Also the way artists like Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger infiltrated the system by making music for children.

Philip: And you know, in a way, that music assaulted its way into the early pop as well. Bobby Dylan came up from that. He started out as a folk singer, really, and then he went electric and it was a big scandal about that. But rock n' roll as political music really came out of that, Pete Seeger and all these people. It’s really the marrow of the bones, you know? That’s what it is. The most important thing, I would say, when I look at the Constitution is the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, which is what you get with these marches and you get it at the concert halls, too. It’s the bedrock of our democracy, really. And when you see your kids and your grandkids doing it, it’s really moving. Don’t you think, Ginny?

Ginny: I completely think so, it’s so moving. At the shows, people come up to us in tears afterwards. But part of our mission is to celebrate, and when you look at the history of authoritarian regimes, one of the first things they do is they try to control how you express your joy and how you express yourself by going after the arts. We like to say we celebrate joy as a form of resistance. Just coming together, even if you don’t know the language or what we are singing, the idea that we’re all singing together collectively and creating joy in the room is in itself a form of resistance.

Philip: It’s also a matter of freedom of the press, too. We really need to have a free press, and there’s a portion of our population who doesn’t really understand that. They think we have to control the press, when it’s exactly the opposite. But I find that the spirit is here, and we all will prevail in the end. Sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic about things. But at this last march we went to in New York City, you’re gonna get 400 or 500,000 people. It’s really great to be in the street with that many people. And it’s not a football game, it’s a big deal.

Ginny: And what Philip said about it being a very moving experience, when you’re at these concerts. I think that’s the great thing about the arts in general, specifically music. The idea that intellectually you can be connected to a political idea, but you might not be emotionally connected. And I think music is that perfect bridge between the heart and the mind.

Philip: I feel like we are in a 50-year cycle. I’m in my 80s now, and if you live long enough you get to see that cycle. And it’s absolutely real. I feel that 50-year cycle has come around again, and it’s such an organic thing. Frankly, I think it's Mother Nature. I feel like she pulls the strings.

Ginny: I feel like what you just said about it being cyclical gives me hope that we’re not going to go down this crazy authoritarian path it feels like we’re on. We’re gonna get out of it.

Philip: Talk to some of your older friends who were there. You gotta get to your 70s and 80s and then you can see these things. The feeling is real, and being on the street in 2018 gave me that same feeling of when we were trying to get out of Vietnam. There’s a slow heartbeat in the country for this kind of thing, and I feel like the optimism can come from that. When I look at the young kids who had no way of even knowing about the 60s, yet they get caught up in it, too

How will these issues and messages manifest at this year’s concert?

Philip: When the concert began, it was about the Tibetan people when 200,000 people left the country. Eventually some of them came to America, and some of us began working with them. When we started this 30 years ago, the Tibet House was based on the preservation of a culture that was being threatened.

Ginny: Philip, I just want to thank you for having created this institution, and I think it’s so powerful. One thing we talk about in the activism movements space is how my liberation is bound up in yours. It’s like we each have this sort of micro cause, which is really a fallacy when you look at the larger human picture and see we all have to stand up for each other. It all essentially boils down to human rights, which is exactly what Tibet House is standing up for.

Philip: There’s always a part of the planet that’s being threatened. We’re never gonna be finished with this, Ginny. It just keeps going on. But we are still up and we’re standing.