It’s August 21, 2018. Kristen Marion stands in front of a banner that reads “Dedicated to those who fight against the white supremacy that UNC upholds.” She’s wearing blue denim overalls and a black tee-shirt with matching black tennis shoes. She holds a microphone. She appears unfazed, confident—grounded.
“We’re moving that statue right there,” she says, pointing off in the distance to the statue called, “Silent Sam”, locating on the North-most end of UNC Chapel Hill’s Campus. “I’m going to start us off with a song. This is called ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ It’s the black national anthem. Feel free to sing along with me. Typically we stand for this, but y’all are already standing, so that’s cool.”
And then, she sings. “Lift every voice and sing/ ‘Til Earth and Heaven rings/ Rings with a harmony of Liberty…” Every time I play Marion’s voice singing this song, I feel goosebumps raise all across my skin. Her voice truly does ring out, clear and strong, among a chorus of protesters singing along.
To anyone watching, Marion’s strength is palpable in her voice and energy. But when I asked her later what was going through her mind as she sang, she responded, “In the moment, mostly what I was thinking about was safety.”
Her answer makes sense. Racial justice protests—especially centered on statues like Silent Sam, one of many mass-produced Confederate statues erected to intimidate people of color at the beginning of the 20th century, about fifty years after the Civil War—can be particularly dangerous for protesters of color.
But Marion also told me that sound and movement are some of the best ways to communicate in crowds—and that it can have a healing presence in traumatizing spaces like protests where threats of police brutality and the reminders of the violent racism loom. “It was very traumatizing—music has been a very healing outlet for me personally…. A lot of my friends were looking to me for support,” she said.
So when her friend asked her to sing at the protest, Marion said yes. Marion told me that she sees singing at protests today as similar to Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. “It comes naturally, I think—just because I happen to be passionate about both [politics and music].”
Marion graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May with a double major in Music with a concentration in Vocal Performance and Public Policy. Her father is a musician, and she told me there was always music around her home growing up. Marion’s parents also were involved in activism: her father raised Marion to be Afrocentric, giving Marion a positive lens and a critical context through which to view Blackness in America, and her mother was involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy and education during Marion’s childhood. So Marion was always aware of race, injustice—and music.
She has fostered both interests, looking for outlets throughout her academic and work lives to pursue both. Marion is currently doing racial justice work as a consultant. In her free time, she also works on her music career, which she uses to lift up other people and spread positivity about women of color. “Making sure that people feel good listening to my music is important to me,” Marion said. She notes that in the music industry, “For women of color, the exploitation is very real,” and tries to use her voice to combat that.
For Marion, using her voice to move mountains is natural. She’s happy to use her music as a way to “give back.” For her, it is something so small: singing and advocacy—her talent and her bravery—these are just elements of life. This woman moves mountains simply by being who she is—and letting others be who they are, something that is important to Marion. As she says, “Drink water, mind your business—it doesn’t matter who they’re dating. It doesn’t matter who they run their household. Just mind your business.”