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The Social Gospel Music Of Tracy Howe’s ‘Things That Grow’

Bearing witness to neocolonial poverty and violence in marginalized communities while acknowledging the resilience of the human spirit, Tracy Howe creates social gospel music inspired by collective struggles for liberation in the United States and throughout Latin America.

Her most recent album, “Things That Grow,” was recorded with several musicians in Memphis, and the title track is about choosing to build a world in which we want to live.

As I moved to Charlottesville from kind of I want to be doing things for justice, I want to be an activist, I want to be an artist, I really shifted, and partly because I had to,” Howe shared. “Because of changing life circumstances of now being a mother, having physical limitations.”

Changing life circumstances provided the early seeds for the album, but she also is a theologian. She traveled with faith leaders to Ferguson, Missouri, after Officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown nearly five years ago.

“I’ve had many conversions in my life, and that was one because the young people that I encountered there,” Howe recalled. “I had at this point in my life been around the world, in Latin America and at the border, and in different communities working in impoverished areas in the United States. But this was something completely different, what was happening, and the wisdom with which these young people spoke seemed to me to transcend. It transcended their age. It transcended their context. It transcended so many things.”

From her time in Ferguson, Howe developed a deep appreciation of the movement for black lives. She wrote “Bury Me,” which appears on the album. It was inspired by the protest ritual of saying the names of people killed by state violence.

“Bury me in the struggle for freedom, in the arms of those who know my name. Cover me in love as the struggle it goes on. Say my name ‘til something beautiful is born,” Howe sings.

It is a song Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, who gained recognition for his movement music and work in Ferguson, performs regularly.

“Most recently, I had a friend who was at a vigil for Stephon Clark, who was murdered by police in Sacramento, and told me that the song, ‘Bury Me,’ had been sung,” Howe said. “Those kinds of things—in my world of independent music and just being dedicated to movement work—are the closest thing to a Grammy. Knowing [these songs] are traveling. It’s so wonderful.”

In 2016, Howe traveled with a delegation of national clergy to Standing Rock to support indigenous people who were fighting against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline project on sacred land that violated tribal sovereignty.

“These things just deeply changed me and also [really prepared me], and our community for what was to come in Charlottesville,” she noted, referring to the demonstrations by white supremacists as well as the car attack that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.

One song that explicitly deals with environmental injustice is “Frack Me.” As Howe put it, “There’s a lot of anger in that song.”

“When I sing that song, I see really dark things in my head, and they’re things that have already happened. It’s not like I’m looking at a future apocalypse.”

Howe continued, “It’s only been in the last number of years that I’ve even learned to locate myself in a watershed and understand the relationship between these struggles for water and the struggle against environmental degradation and its relationship to indigenous sovereign rights and so many other things.”

“Indigenous communities have been fighting for us, meaning all of humanity, through their attempts to protect water and land for generations, and we see that in Virginia.”

A music video for “Frack Me” presents part of the resistance against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley pipeline projects. However, Howe initially wrote the song while thinking of how the Bureau of Land Management opened parts of Utah and Colorado to mining and fracking.

Howe grew up in Boulder County, Colorado. She backpacked through Colorado and Utah on BLM land. This is land that “belongs to all of us,” and yet, “so much of this land has been fracked up and it’s devastating.”

The song really speaks to a growing awakening to a struggle that has not ceased. It is a fight that indigenous people, including those in Latin America, have fought for many generations.

Ana Maria Vasquez, a part of Bridges Across Borders, designed the artwork for the album cover. It is called “Our Lady Of The Border.”

“Señora is taking the border wall that exists at our southern Mexico border and ripping it and holding it very closely to her heart,” Howe described.

Artwork designed for inside the CD features adult outlines of ghosts. It shows shadows that tie into horrific violence endured by communities. Yet, there is a child being held, who is full of “many growing things.” The child represents a promise that humanity can “renew and grow and seed.”

Howe is a professional musician, who in her twenties had a full-time touring career. Her family had a grand piano, and her father could play by ear. He was known to play “Here Comes The Sun” by The Beatles and “Clair De Lune” by Claude Debussy. Music was in her home, and she begged her parents for music lessons.

She wrote poems that developed into songwriting, and when Howe went off to college, she was part of basement projects. That led to tours to colleges and universities, where she performed for smaller groups.

Howe eventually pursued a graduate degree at Harvard Divinity School. She traveled to Latin American countries and engaged in youth and ministry work.

Through her nonprofit, the Restoration Project, she was able to support some of her work as a musician in the 1990s and 2000s. She now has a nonprofit called Restoration Village Arts to support her current work.

“I think that if I had started touring in the age of Patreon and GoFundMe, that was the same kind of model that I had way back in the early 2000s but that infrastructure didn’t exist,” Howe recalled. “So I had a small nonprofit to do that kind of community-supported artistry.”

“My hope is that this album is both something that invites people into this radical work and sustains those with the encouragement to keep going.”

Listen to “Til Love Comes,” the first single from Tracy Howe’s “Things That Grow”:

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."