The U.S. Capitol is pictured as demonstrators gather on Pennsylvania Avenue during the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC.
The U.S. Capitol is pictured as demonstrators gather on Pennsylvania Avenue during the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

At March For Our Lives, Survivors Discuss Music's Role in the Fight Against Gun Violence

“It’s critically important we have musicians helping us with this movement,” says an educator who lived through the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Among the hundreds of thousands demanding an end to gun violence at March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. on Saturday (March 24) were those identified by small orange ribbons or orange buttons emblazoned with a single word: Survivor.

Richard Martinez wears a broken watch, taken from the body of his son, Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez. He was killed in the May 2014 shootings in Isla Vista, Calif., near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Rev. Sharon Risher’s mother and cousins were shot to death in church, when Dylann Roof opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. in June 2015.

Maize Devine remembers when a co-worker “yanked me to the ground and screamed 'Get down!'" when the shooting began at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas that took 59 lives in Oct. 2016.

During the Feb. 14 massacre that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., school librarian Diana Perri Haneski barricaded 50 students in a media center, refusing to emerge until police broke through the door.

Haneski, a former resident of Connecticut, was comforted in Washington by the presence of a friend from that state whom she’s known for 36 years, Yvonne Cech. The two now shared another, more tragic bond, as Cech was the library media specialist at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 first-graders and six adults were shot to death on Dec. 14, 2012.

“Five years and two months to the day, Parkland happened,” said Cech. "And the amazing difference is the students -- who can’t be called political because they can’t even vote -- they are shouting from the rooftops. And we have to support that."
 

 
These and other survivors of gun violence -- mass shootings, street crime, domestic violence and family suicides -- were brought together in Washington this past week by the anti-gun-violence organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Several participated in a CNN program on gun violence hosted by Brooke Baldwin and broadcast the day before the Washington march.

These survivors spoke of the importance of music and musicians to the anti-gun-violence movement to Billboard, about why the Parkland shooting has ignited the most massive demand yet for change -- and how the young activists can sustain the momentum of the historic demonstrations.

The commitment of musicians to this cause was clear the night before the march as Fall Out Boy, G-Eazy, Bebe Rhexa, Lizzo, Cam and others performed at Stay Amped: A Concert to End Gun Violence at The Anthem in Southwest Washington. “This is a youth movement,”  Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz said to the audience, “and we just want to be the soundtrack to that tonight.”

At the Washington rally, the day began with Andra Day and Common performing “Rise Up” backed by students from Baltimore's Cardinal Shehan School Choir. “And stand up,” Day told the crowd, “because we won’t stand for this any more.”  Demi Lovato chose a 2011 hit with new relevance. “Go on and try to tear me down,” she sang. “I will be rising from the ground / like a skyscraper.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, walking onstage with his hands held to his heart, joined Ben Platt on “Found/Tonight,” the mash-up of two songs from the artists' respective Tony-Award-winning musicals: Hamilton's "The Story of Tonight" and Dear Evan Hansen's "You Will Be Found." Vic Mensa performed “We Could Be Free.” Miley Cyrus, wearing a #MDStrong hoodie and holding a sign reading “Never Again” powered through “The Climb,” declaring “this song has never felt so special.” Ariana Grande sang “Be Alright,” lending her voice to fight violence once again, nine months after she co-headlined the benefit for victims of suicide bomb attack outside her concert at the Manchester Arena.

Even the students offered music for the moment, as  Stoneman Douglas High School students Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Pena performed “Shine,” a song they wrote after the shooting.

And when Jennifer Hudson closed out the rally with a tour-de-force gospel performance of “The Times They Are A-Changin,” the circle was clearly unbroken, as her song choice recalled Dylan’s appearance during the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights.

“Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call,” sang Hudson, the stage framing a view of the United States Capitol Building in the distance. Hudson herself has a heartbreaking and personal tie to the cause, as her brother and mother were shot to death in 2008.

In times of momentous change, artists always have a role, says Devine, the Las Vegas shooting survivor.

“I think of Picasso’s Guernica,” she said of the artist’s famous painting of a bombing during the Spanish Civil War, “and how artists can use their medium to depict emotion and pain and tragedy and sacrifice in a way that doesn’t come across in the spoken word. And I think that it’s so important for [musicians] to be involved in this and to be able to communicate what we feel.”

Cech, who lived through the Sandy Hook shooting, agrees. “It’s a culture shift,” she said. “ Change is about to happen. And we need the entertainers, the musicians, the authors, the filmmakers, the regular voices. We need all of the voices to change a culture. And we hope that people will reflect this change of culture in their music and in their writing and in the arts, because that’s what a culture is. So it’s critically important we have musicians helping us with this movement."

For Risher, who survived the Charleston shooting, music was critically important to her healing. For six months after that attack, “I didn’t even go to church,” she said, “and I’m an ordained minister. My mom loved gospel music and I would listen to those songs that she would listen to, and that would give me hope that the faith she had, and the faith I have, is going to get me through this. I don’t know what I would have done without having music. Even today, that little girl Bebe Rhexa?  She’s got a song with Florida Georgia Line, 'Meant To Be.' That’s my song that gets me moving every morning."

After so many mass shootings, the survivors who spoke with Billboard reflected on why the deaths at at Stoneman Douglas High School have made such a difference, and why that attack energized this movement. 

One reason is a recognition by the students of the scope of the violence across the nation. The Parkland activists have embraced their peers who have lived daily with the threat of guns on their streets or domestic violence in their homes.

At the rally, students from Chicago described their experience with gun violence in their neighborhoods and the lack of political action on the social causes of that violence. Virginia elementary school student Naomi Wadler told the crowd that she "represent(s) the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant beautiful girls full of potential."   

The Parkland students are also part of a generation that “has been doing lockdown drills since they were in kindergarten,” says Martinez. "When these kids speak out, kids across the country can relate to them because they have the shared experience of living with these drills. And they have an understanding of social media, how to use it and how to leverage it to reach out to kids who are also their age."

In one of the most insightful commentaries written in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre, Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick attributes the eloquence and savvy of the students to the atypically enriched schooling they received. "These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted,” she wrote.” They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.”

In Haneski’s conversation with Billboard, the Stoneman Douglas High School librarian echoed that view. She recalled the impassioned speech by Emma Gonzalez three days after the Parkland massacre that drew worldwide attention as the high school senior called out legislators backed by the National Rifle Association.

“When Emma was shaking her notes, those were literally her AP Government class notes,” says Haneski. "Some of these kids actually studied that day [of the attack], lobbying and interesting groups [like the NRA],  so they were ready."

The survivors who spoke with Billboard acknowledge the young activists now face the greater challenge of maintaining the momentum after March For Our Lives.

Three words will guide their path forward, say the Parkland activists: "Register. Educate. Vote." The phrase now appears on the home page of March For Our Lives, with a link to a voter registration form. Gonzalez concluded her Feb. 17 speech with the declaration "Register to vote!"  Music-affiliated organizations have since responded in kind. 

“To take this moment of pain and grief and channel it into building political power to make her state and our country safer is heroic,” says Carolyn DeWitt, executive director of Rock the Vote, which has been registering voters for more than 25 years.

Headcount, which has registered voters at concerts since 2004, staged the largest mobilization in its history March 24 with the support of the Hip Hop Caucus and Voto Latino. At one event at Georgetown Law School, the Hip Hop Caucus reported, Vic Mensa recruited new voters accompanied by activist Wanda Durant, mother of NBA star Kevin Durant. Headcount also is publicizing the states where 16- and 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote.

And yet, young voters in the past have not been engaged. 

During the 2016 election, according the U.S. Census, only 55 percent of citizens aged 18-25 reported they were registered to vote. Of those, nearly 38 percent reported the did not vote. At March For Our Lives, Parkland activist David Hogg acknowledged the issue. "First time voters show up [only] 18 percent of the time in midterm elections," he said, addressing the crowd. "Not any more! Who here is going to vote in the 2018 election?" A roar of affirmation went up.

The student activists behind the March for Our Lives said they will not stop.

“I saw David Hogg [Thursday] and we were talking about the fact that it was spring break,” said Haneski. “I said,'Are you going to relax and take some time?' He said, no, no, we can’t rest.  We’ve got to move forward. This is only the starting line.'"