Say What You Mean: Creative Chant Development

Lots of times, organizations will put weeks or months of effort into mobilizations and actions, preparing for different scenarios and developing leadership, but on the day of the action we use the first chants that come into our heads and try to force a fit. This makes the go-to chant at so many protests: “Hey hey, ho ho [something’s] got to go.” This chant lasts the whole protest, doesn’t communicate our message well (and it’s the first and most-reinforced message anyone hears!), doesn’t communicate what we want, overshadows the good planning we did for all the other pieces, and ends up draining the energy and enthusiasm of participants.

I believe that spending even a half-hour in chant development can transform the feeling of your protest into something vibrant, fun, energizing and on-message.

To develop great chants, we need to start with our message. At the time of this writing, there is a political effort to ram through approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, so let’s go with that. Talk about your message as a group and write it across the top of a big piece of paper. You can have multiple messages.


The Keystone XL Pipeline would sell off the environment, our neighborhoods, our health and safety to fuel our oil addiction. It’s time for solidarity on a massive scale and direct action to stop it in its tracks!

It’s really important you start with your message, no matter how complex, because if you don’t you are not likely to clearly convey what you’re fighting for.

Now, we’ll take the key words (and synonyms) from these messages and write them on the left hand side of the paper. Let’s also include words that are related to these key words and ones that are important to our organization, committee, campaign and culture.

Let people free associate words/ phrases that rhyme with any of them. You can always add more words to the original list. Encourage creativity and stretching rhymes! Things that make people laugh should definitely end up in some chants. The more words you get out of the brainstorm, the more raw material you have for great chants) For example:

Keystone: (this is a hard one to start with!) flea-prone, free phone, unknown, re-grown, re-sewn, kneebone, tree cone

KXL: excel, Nextel, repel

Ooh! Just noticed that KXL looks like “X-tra Large”—let’s riff on that:

Extra-large: oil barge, Marge, sarge, What’s extra-large? Well, it’s an Extra-large problem: topple ‘em, optimum, cobble ‘em (together)

Oil: boil, coil, doily, foil, goil (girl), loyal, royal, spoil, woild (world).

Note that for this one, we’re basically going through the alphabet and trying letters with the “oil” suffix. And stretching it a bit.

Pipeline: not the right time, lifeline, nighttime, fight mine,

Trans-Canada: Plan spanning the, hams spamming ya, The Man’s plannin’ the, hands fanning the (flames) Now go off of this last one—playing their games, taking names, looking for fame, we can’t settle for more of the same!

Lobbyist: hobbyist, robbery twist, floppiest, gloppy kiss

Politicians: gone fishin’, on a mission, wishin’, kissin’, something’s missin’

Representatives: tentative, anal retentive

Senate: win it, spin it, end it

Politics: dirty tricks, flicks, make me sick

Environment: liar sent, a mired tent, tired and spent, tryin’ to pay rent, timely sent

Neighborhoods: a bill of goods, a waiver could, should, would, save our woods

Health: wealth, stealth, filth

Safety: don’t mistake me, it’s chafing, wakey-wakey

Addiction: affliction, restriction, conscription, prescription, good diction

The People: equal, sequel

Organize: eyes, prize, flies, ties, whys, size

Fight Back: under attack, catching flack, move from the bottom to the top of the stack

Rights: fights, nights, tights, lights

Direct action: gain traction, satisfaction, fraction

Just put everything up, without judgment. Next, break up into small teams and give each group a short amount of time (20 minutes or less) to combine these words and phrases into chants. They can always add more words. The only rule is, when we combine these rhymes into chants, we want them to reflect our message(s).

Bring everybody back and perform!

Please feel free and encouraged to use any of these rhymes for your own actions.

Here are my contributions:

(Style: Rhymes-within-the-rhyme)

Keystone politicians

Only loyal to oil

Listen boils and goils

They’re tryin’ to spoil the woild

But we’ll

Foil their plans

Stop ‘em with our bare hands


Continental solidarity

Take a stand!


(Style: the classic couplet—2 line chant)

KXL’s got an extra-large problem

100,000 activists

Are gonna topple’ em

(I tried to get a little too clever with this last one and have it be “100,000 activists are optin’ in to topple ‘em” but that gave no space to take a breath. Breathing=important).

One thought on “Say What You Mean: Creative Chant Development

  1. You are SO right about the tiredness of old chants, energy-sucking defaults. SO right. Your suggestions here are very clever and smart. And the whole process you’ve laid out is skillful and creative. Everyone reading this should hire you to run one of these workshops. Turn it into a potluck and I’m pretty sure the ideas will flow. just fine.

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