In June of 2020, as Kansas City’s streets erupted in pent up frustration over brutality and racism, a Kansas City band was sitting on a protest song that spoke to the moment with urgency and love.
“Rise Up” had been in the works for a while. But the band, The Freedom Affair, was still gearing up to release it as part of a full-length album, which they had previously envisioned doing with live shows and a whole lot of fanfare. As it stood, the nine band members were hunkered down at home like the rest of us, trying to find their footing as humans in a pandemic, and performers in a landscape where each and every gig had suddenly disappeared.
So although Rise Up wasn’t written with last summer’s protests in mind, the band quickly released the song as a single, available for digital consumption.
Kansas City dug it. People all over town put on headphones and heard three rousing voices sing these simple words in harmony:
“Let’s move toward a brighter day/Together we can find a better way/Rise up…”
When I heard the song alone at home, I got chills. But something was missing, and that was undoubtedly the sweaty dance floor. It was the ability to see people’s faces and connect, viscerally, through the song’s driving rhythms and inspiring words.
The entire album — Freedom Is Love — came out digitally in September 2020, and it was finally released on vinyl earlier this month.
Seyko Groves is one of the vocalists in the Freedom Affair. She only recently got to hold the physical album in her hands. After being a band without shows for so long, holding a tangible record was a powerful thing.
“I got this unexpected rush of emotion,” Groves recalls as she describes that moment, which took place at the band’s first in-person rehearsal in more than a year. “I had to sit down and just look at this record and say, ‘This is what we did. We did this. Through this hard, hard year in the trenches, this is what was happening. This is real. It wasn’t all a dream.”
The band is rehearsing because it finally has plans to perform a live show at Lemonade Park, an outdoor venue born of the pandemic, now reopening for a second season.
This time without live music has been strange, not just for musicians but for listeners, too. Albums have dropped, shows have happened on Zoom. But live music — unmediated by a screen — is just different. It’s something I feel more intuitively than ever, having gone so long without live shows.
There’s also science to back up what I’m feeling.
Scientists can measure the impact music has on a person listening by studying heart rate, sweat, skin temperature, muscle tension, salivary cortisol, respiration rate, cerebral brain activity. Lo and behold, music affects all of those things.
In 2016, researchers got specific about the difference between live music and recorded music. They found that during live performance and only live performance, audience members’ heart rates speed up and slow down in tandem with the changing pace of the music.
Another study found that people at live shows tend, over the course of those shows, to start moving in unison, which also has a surprising and measurable effect. It’s part of that good feeling you get listening to music in a crowd.
“After adults move in synchrony,” reads the study, “even when unaware of their synchronized movements, they remember more about each other, express liking each other more, and show greater levels of trust and cooperation.”
In other words, music is a transformative group experience, and if you’ve been vaguely unsatisfied by all the Zoom concerts you’ve attended by yourself, science gets you. And if that good feeling’s gone missing for people who go to concerts just for fun, the loss is even more profound for musicians.
Seyko Groves describes what that’s been like for members of The Freedom Affair.
“We all came to a place where we kind of felt checked out. We didn’t have that connection with other people, and it got to the point where it would even seep into our own personal abilities. Some were like, ‘I can’t. I can’t even get on my instrument anymore,'” she says. “Making music makes us feel like humans, makes us feel like ourselves.”
With a show on the horizon April 10, and the band meeting again to get ready, that life force has returned.
“I felt electrified to be able to be in the same place with my band mates, I was jumping out of my skin. I just cannot wait,” Groves swoons.
What matters to her now, getting ready for that first show after lockdown, isn’t being perfect. What matters is connecting.
“I feel nothing but joy,” Groves tells me when I ask if she has the back-to-school jitters. “I feel nothing but excitement. I feel like even if we messed up, we’ll all be so happy to be there that it wouldn’t even matter.”
“And then I think maybe,” she adds thoughtfully, “that’s how we always should have felt.”
So it’s a juggling act. We finally get to do some of the things we did before, which is exciting. But maybe some things we’ve let go of — like all the pressure we used to put on ourselves and each other — can stay in the past. The whole idea of re-entry into social situations is like that for a lot of us, whether we’re preparing to get on a stage or not. Even just getting ready to see family and friends face-to-face is a big deal.
Seyko Groves has some wisdom about accepting all of it.
“I don’t want to come out of all this and be the same,” she says.
Amen. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get out and finally dance, as part of a crowd, to those songs about change.