The power of song can bring us together

A dining hall booms with prideful voices singing the bridge of what has become one of my favorite participatory group songs, while each person awaits their table’s created verse to be featured.

My roots go down, down into the earth,
My roots go down, down into the earth,
My roots go down, down into the earth,
My roots go down.

This chorus of 80 or so folx included mostly young teen voices, with a minority of adults, of which I was one. We were in residence together in the early ’90s at a four-week leadership program of high school students from across Detroit, all Black, and the other half youth from rural, northern Michigan, all white.

In addition to teaching social justice folk songs to a group of teenagers, who had not known one another let alone lived together, we also learned folk dances from all cultures, planted and harvested a garden each year, engaged in oodles of project-based learning opportunities and built community with one another.

I broke bread with young people who kept an open razor blade under their tongue all hours of the day for protection and youth who were actively counting down to the opening day of deer hunting season. The assumptions were strong in the first couple days, as everyone was sizing up one another.

Inclusive to expansive

One way to transcend from inclusive to expansive is to build genuine relationships amongst marginalized communities. We can’t only offer our own songs and expect others to teach us theirs. We need to find spaces that are equalizers and provide opportunities for sharing, investigating and celebrating. Then the sharing becomes an invitation and not an expectation.

In our residential program, we all had our grooves that resonated – the specific music, songs and musicians. Hip-hop, rap, R&B, country, rock, pop, depending on your leanings, could serve as the uniter or divider on whether you belong to one group of people or another.

We were many genders and cultures, eating foods we were not used to and living together in a place we had not known before. There was no shortage of equalizing moments.


Those moments are when transportation happens – when a lyric and verse bring us into a memory, a place of joy or sorrow. A place at times that only we know. These moments are powerful for me, especially with the opportunity to see myself and others expressed through collaboration because we are able to start really seeing, learning and understanding one another. Ah, then we are able to create our own verses.

I am a heart, ready to be filled,
I am a heart, ready to be filled,
I am a heart, ready to be filled,
My roots go down.

What are the areas where you can expand your knowledge and grow genuine relationships? These are the places to deepen your roots.

We are in the world, divided together, and we certainly do not have a residential leadership program to go to for a curated experience just for us in these times.

I learned everything about humanity, love and the power of voices rising up and uniting through genuine relationships. What I’ve witnessed, what I know and what I’ve participated in is the power of song to bring people together. All people.

Looking for the equalizers

We are all now looking for the equalizers. Join forces with causes you care about, be a beginner, open to learning and ready to receive.

As we close out the year of 2020, let’s “Rise Up Singing” a new song together.

For inspiration, visit or watch on YouTube:

Kiku Johnson is Rainbow Community Center’s executive director. As a man of color and trans experience, Kiku has invested his life engaging and elevating youth and adult voices of marginalized intersectional identities. Send ­questions and comments to