Saturday, October 8, 2011

Occupy Wall Street's Human Microphone Strategy & Call and Response Songs

Written by Azizi Powell

[updated with another video - 10/21/2011]

[updated with a link to another blog post on mic check - 12/3/2011]

The "human microphone" is a referent for the call & response pattern of communication that is being used in Occupy Wall Street, an ongoing series of demonstrations in New York City to protest social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of corporate money and lobbyists on government, among other concerns. The "human microphone" communication strategy is when groups of people repeat the exact same words that a recognized speaker has said. Here's an excerpt from an online article about Occupy Wall Street's human microphone communication strategy: October 6, 2011; The Nation: We Are All Human Microphones
by Richard Kim
"Anyone who's been down to Occupy Wall Street and stayed for a General Assembly will instantly recognize the call and response that begins, and frequently interrupts, each meeting.

"Mic check?" someone implores.
"MIC CHECK!" the crowd shouts back, more or less in unison.

The thing is—there's no microphone. New York City requires a permit for "amplified sound" in public, something that the pointedly unpermitted Occupy Wall Street lacks. This means that microphones and speakers are banned from Liberty Plaza, and the NYPD has also been interpreting the law to include battery-powered bullhorns. Violators can be sentenced for up to thirty days in prison...

So despite all the attention given to how Twitter, Facebook and livestream video have helped spread the word, the heart of the occupation is most definitely unplugged. But the protesters aren't deterred one bit; they've adopted an ingeniously simple people-powered method of sound amplification. After the mic check, the meeting proceeds:
with every few words/ WITH EVERY FEW WORDS!
repeated and amplified out loud/REPEATED AND AMPLIFIED OUT LOUD!
by what has been dubbed/BY WHAT HAS BEEN DUBBED!
the human microphone/THE HUMAN MICROPHONE!!! (jazz hands here).

The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once. As with every media technology, to some degree the medium is the message. It's hard to be a downer over the human mic when your words are enthusiastically shouted back at you by hundreds of fellow occupiers, so speakers are usually pretty upbeat (or at least sound that way). Likewise, the human mic is not so good for getting across complex points about, say, how the Federal Reserve's practice of quantitative easing is inadequate to address the current shortage of global aggregate demand…so speakers tend to express their ideas in straightforward narrative or moral language…

It is, of course, ironic that New York City's attempt to crackdown on political protest by restricting "amplified sound" unwittingly ended up contributing to the structural strength of its rowdiest protest in decades. But like in Egypt or Argentina or Belarus or other places where the authorities sought to silence speech, the people found a way to be heard.

So how about it, can I get a mic check for this one: The people have the power."
By the way, I think the "jazz hands" that Richard Kim, the author of that article referred to is the way that applause or approval is indicated in American Sign Language.

Here's a video example of Occupy Wall Street's human microphone communication strategy:

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET "Human Megaphone" in One Police Plaza - 9/30/2011

Uploaded by NOATSFilms on Oct 1, 2011

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET uses a practice called "Human Megaphone" to help deliver a speech to the masses. Public address systems and megaphones have not been allowed by the NYPD through the entire occupation. Guess this is how people addressed large crowds before electricity.
Most of the shouted words in this video are difficult to understand, but here's my attempt at transcription with words I don't understand represented by question marks. Please correct any mistakes.:

You have opened this space.
We are what people are talking about.
And doing something about.
Runaway ? power.
You have broken our democracy.
Outrageous inequality.
Cruel actions
including actions of the police
You have shined a light on
the actions in this city
You can’t keep us from freedom of assembly.
Click for a pancocojams blog post entitled "Using Mic Check As A Form Of Protest".

Perhaps the most commonly known form of "call & response" in the United States is its use in various genres of African American music. In one form of call & response songs, a soloist sings a short line and another person or persons or the entire group repeats the exact same words that the leader sang. Here's an example of that form of call & response:

"Racing With The Sun", Ella Jenkins and the Goodwill Spiritual Choir of Monumental Baptist Church

Uploaded by caroldeniseify on Apr 12, 2011

Lyrics: (repeat every line)

Get your day’s work done
Get your day’s work done
Or soon you’ll be
Racing with the sun.
Make your plans today
Fore the evening’s on
Or you’ll end up
Racing with the sun

Hard, hard, times
That you’ve had
Hard, hard times
But today you’re mighty glad.

'Cause your work’s all through
And your battle’s won
Now you’ll never never be
Racing with the sun.
In some forms of call & response songs the group sings a different short phrase than the one that the soloist sand. That same short phrase is usually repeated after each line of the song. The soloist might also ask a question and the response is given as an answer to that question. The African American Gospel song "Certainly Lord" is an example of this form of call & response song.

"Certainly Lord" (1978)- Rev. Ruben Willingham

Uploaded by JayEm86 on May 22, 2008
The first question that the soloist in this song asks is "Have you got good religion?" The response is "Certainly, Lord". That same pattern was used for the 1960s civil rights song with the same title. In that song, the first question asked is "Do you want your freedom?" The response remains "Certainly, Lord". However, in my experience, the civil rights song had a faster tempo than the spiritual version of "Certainly Lord". Visit this page of my Cocojams website African American Civil Rights Songs to find two other videos of the Gospel version of that song, as well as the words to a civil rights version of that song.

I think that it's very fitting that the call & response strategy is being used in this newest civil rights movement. To quote Bruce Foster (bwf27), a commenter on the above link Nation's article:

The voice of the people..
Can and will be heard.

Rhiannon Giddens - "We Are the 99" at Occupy Wall Street

Uploaded by LouannDorrough on Oct 17, 2011

Rhiannon Giddens, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, leads the crowd at Zuccotti Park in singing her song, "We Are the 99," on October 16, 2011.

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Visitor comments are welcome!


  1. Call & response is also used in music and in the spoken word.

    Visit for information about call & response used in instrumental music.

    African American preaching style provide numerous examples of call & response, including this commonly heard exchange:

    Minister- Can I get a witness?


    An example of call & response from the 1960s civil rights chant is:

    Leader-What do we want?
    Group- Freedom!
    Leader-When do we want it?
    Group- Now!

  2. Here's the top entry as of this date for the phrase "Human Microphone" from

    October 19, 2011 Urban Word of the Day

    A tactic protesters can use to circumvent police bans on electronic amplification of speech. One person starts to speak to a large crowd. After a short sentence, everyone within hearing distance repeats whatever was said at the top of their lungs, allowing people outside of hearing distance to hear the speech.

    The Human Microphone on Wall Street announced this speech:

    "Mic Check."

    "MIC CHECK!!"

    "The human microphone is slow and cumbersome"


    "but it really makes you think through"


    "what it is you want"


    "to say."

    "TO SAY!!"

    by Occupy Urban Dictionary Oct 10, 2011

  3. Another value of this Human Microphone method may be to foster a sense of community among large groups of people.

    However, I think that there's also the danger that the solution to the lack of amplification can be seen as an end in itself. I think it would not be the best outcome if protestors started thinking. "Aren't we cool to have thought of this way of communicating in large groups. Even when we get electronic amplification which will allow us to discuss more complicated subjects and solutiond, we'll continue with this cool human microphone system."

  4. This comment serves as an expansion of my statement in this post about "jazz hands".

    "Jazz Hands" are hand signals for approval during a speaker's statement, after a speaker's statement, or during a call for vote. That hand signal is two hands held face level while wiggling the fingers of both hands several times. I believe that hand signal comes from American Sign Language's signal for applause. Another hand signal for approval that is used during the Occupy movement is two thumbs up.

    The hand signal for disapproval that is being used by the Occupy movement is either two thumbs down or hand crossed face level or over your head.

    I suppose these hand signals were adopted in order to save time in attempting to achieve "consensus" in the movement's general assemblies-that is as a substitute for paper voting. However, I'm not only concerned that these methodologies are being institutionalized, I'm also concerned that these the human microphone and the hand signals are becomeing counterproductive to the goal of enlisting other members of the 99% because they are seen as objects of ridicule.