Songwriting Contest Celebrates Student Voices for Social Justice

Meet Berklee’s 2023 Songs for Social Change Contest winners: Longhai Zheng, Varsha Krishnamoorthy, and Lester Wong.

May 17, 2023

Music and art have always been potent, irreplaceable methods of creating social change. This year’s Songs for Social Change (S4SC) Contest, presented by the Songwriting Department, and facilitated by faculty members Mark Simos (Songwriting), Joe Bennett (Professional Music), and Daniel Cantor (Music Production and Engineering), was a remarkable example of student voices using that power to be the change they wish to see in the world.

Last month in the Red Room at Cafe 939, 12 student performers and a packed house audience gathered in true activist form to celebrate the unique gifts of each artist’s chosen cause. The 40 songwriters who received awards, performed in the showcase, or were selected for the contest SoundCloud playlist and judges’ shout-outs represented 11 U.S. states and 10 countries.

For full contest results, song lyrics, photos, and social media links, visit the Songs of Social Change 2023 website.

Longhai Zheng, First Place

Longhai Zheng

Longhai Zheng

The coveted first-place prize went to Longhai Zheng of Jinzhou, China, for his song “Good Boy.” In a show-stopping performance complete with four backup dancers, intricate choreography, and coordinated costumes, Zheng, who performs as OTIZ, gave the crowd what showcase emcee, first-time contest judge, and songwriting faculty member Sherry Li described as “the hardest hitting dance-feminist song I’ve ever heard in Chinese, [and] from a male artist.”

“In Chinese society, even today, we still hear a lot of, ‘Oh, good girls should do this, good girls should do that…’ and that's not just in one society, that's here too…. OTIZ turned it around, and that's why the song is called ‘Good Boy’…. He’s exposing that irony, that absurdity of all the things we’re asking of women,” Li said.

Zheng’s bold and dazzling performance guided the audience to fully face a serious societal issue through a culturally groundbreaking approach.

“This song means a lot to me, because in China, especially when people talk about women’s rights, there’s a stigma that males are an enemy of the topic,” Zheng said. “As a male artist, I want to help promote gender equality and to show that men are also supporters and allies of women’s rights. We need to recognize that gender should not be a determining factor in a person's fate. We should firmly oppose all forms of gender discrimination and violence, as well as the erroneous belief that gender is linked to individual ability and worth.”

Varsha Krishnamoorthy, Second Place

Varsha Krishnamoorthy

Varsha Krishnamoorthy

Second place was awarded to Varsha Krishnamoorthy of Singapore and Chennai, India, for her song “Woman,” which explores womanhood through the lens of the Hindu goddess Durga. "Durga Maa is one of the most powerful Hindu gods and is revered for her seemingly limitless capabilities, and each lyric is a translation of one of her many names,” Krishnamoorthy said. “A woman can be and express themselves in several different ways and still be entirely woman in her nature.”

Singing with a full live band, Krishnamoorthy preluded her performance with a few words: “This song is really special to me, personally, as a South Asian woman. I feel like our experience is very unique but also is so universal to all women everywhere, and is something that can be very difficult sometimes, but is something that is really beautiful and special and worth celebrating.”

Performed like a battle cry, with the centered assuredness and passion of a woman actively deprogramming from the male-centric global culture, the second verse voices: “I am desire, I am beauty, I’m affection, introspect within, I am what has been. Oh, I am violence, I am antithesis of quiet and compliance. I sit magnificent and mounted on a lion.”

Lester Wong, Third Place

Lester Wong

Lester Wong

In third place was Lester Wong of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with “Rings,” a driving, undeniably danceable pop bop. Wong, whose artist name is Astor Walk, produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the track independently, and collaborated with students Andie Mechanic, Megan Coffey, and Pierce Wagner as writing partners.

“This song is about how all the things I used to be shamed for are now my superpowers. I used to be made fun of for being too artsy or too sensitive, but I’ve realized that now all those things are why people want to work with me,” Wong said. “I’m primarily a songwriter-producer, so performing was a little out of my comfort zone, but it was a lot of fun.”

Sonically fit for Billboard's Global Hot 100 and dressed to express, Wong’s superpowers include infectiously sharing his true colors with pride, honor, and joy—and did we mention alchemy? From the chorus of “Rings”: “Turn the pain into gold. I wear rings now.” Gold records next, perhaps.

Supporting Artists, Inspiring Change

In addition to the recognition and exposure that the student artists receives, the S4SC contest also provides monetary awards to the winners. The first-place song was awarded $1,650, followed by $1,375 for second place and $1,100 for third place. Songs performed in the showcase were awarded $550, and songs selected for inclusion in the contest's SoundCloud playlist received $225.

The power of music to inspire change is undeniable. Through their art, the student songwriters and musicians in the S4SC contest have shed light on important issues and contributed to creating a better world. By transforming their experiences and struggles into something tangible through music, they have ignited hope, empathy, and action within their communities. It's a reminder of how art can be a potent tool for social progress and transformation.

Watch the full concert on Vimeo, and listen to the official contest playlist below:

Related Categories