Allison Russell: Crafting Songs of Resistance, Hope, and Healing in Times of Crisis Review+Photos: Allison Russel at Music Hall of Williamsburg 11/30/23
BROOKLYN, NY- When I’m not writing about music, I write about environmental and public health crises. And with that comes the heaviness of being tasked with bearing witness to loss. We’re losing species, we’re losing island nations, we’re losing innocent lives, whether by the slow violence of pollution burdens unequally borne or the abruptness of bombs.
It feels increasingly like what I write, intended to spur action, winds up more as requiem. Still, the act of fighting for change—it changes something within us. It cultivates hope, not as a fixed thing, but as daily practice.
And that’s how I’d describe Allison Russell’s music: as a practice of hope, wielding “words like spindles bright to weave a world where every child is safe and loved.”
I first encountered Russell’s music as part of a three-band bill at DC’s 9:30 Club in 2014. Russell was performing as Birds of Chicago with her partner, JT Nero. They shared the night with David Wax Museum and Carolina Chocolate Drops. The latter’s Rhiannon Giddens later invited Russell to join Our Native Daughters, a group of four black female banjo players (Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Giddens, and Russell). As Russell described in an NPR interview, the project’s aim was to “excavate Black women’s hidden histories within the diaspora and experience through the archive what we have and what’s missing.”
I share this (incomplete) musical genealogy not to ascribe a linear path to Russell’s journey, but to show how time and distance and chosen family can make space for an artist’s most personal and powerful stories to unfurl. From the Our Native Daughters experience came Russell’s first solo album, Outside Child (2019). It’s autobiographical, and more–weaving fable and history and connecting to a lineage of resistance. The follow-up album released later this year, The Returner, re-situates the narrator in the present tense. And it’s a powerful re-claiming of a now that insists on the possibility of a more capacious future.
Russell and her collaborators, dubbed The Rainbow Coalition, brought these songs to Music Hall of Williamsburg last Thursday night. I wish my photos captured what it felt like to be held by these songs, shoulder to shoulder in a sold-out room. Russell and band—Elenna Canlas (keys), Ganessa James (bass), Elizabeth Pupo-Walker (percussion), Yissy Garcia (drums)—shared smiles warm and sustaining. They led us in handclaps and invited us to sing, to be part of a circle made whole.
Two moments in particular have lingered with me. In the recorded version of the song “Snakelife,” the song ends “and Black is beautiful and good.” Performed live, I felt the melody and percussion wrapping around us, sinuous and foreboding, with dark imagery that careened into a burst of color and light, before drawing back down into a hushed silence. Then Russell offered up two more lines: “And queer is beautiful and good. And trans is beautiful and good.” I think I re-found my faith in this moment, that we can help the unbelieving see this truth.
The second moment was when Resistance Revival Chorus joined for “Take Me to Church,” the Hozier song that has become a protest anthem. Russell describes herself as a “hopeful atheist,” and I felt this secular yet sacred energy. A song can conjure a better world, and it’s on us to go back out there and do the work of world-shaping. (Headcount was in attendance at the show, registering voters.)
The pessimists and cynics tell us the best days are behind us (Russell refers to this trope in “4th Day Prayer”). These nights are a clarion response: there’s so much beauty we can still save, so much life that wants to live. The candle that Russell lit and set down at her feet at the start of the set was not only her light, but ours–one point in a circle of divine light.
Music as community is a theme I return to often, maybe because I need the reminder myself–music made collectively and shared out to a family of everyone who finds the songs resonant, regardless of personal history or identity–that’s the antidote to the unbearable heaviness of the world. We don’t have to do this work in solitude. To quote the title track from The Returner: If you think you’re alone, hold on, I’m coming.Follow Allison Russell on Facebook, Instagram and X.