Charting for Change: Tying Songs to Social Causes Is a Win-Win for Artists

Joel Barhamand
French Montana photographed on Aug. 19, 2018 at Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York.

"If I don't help people, I'm just another rapper with a mic," says French Montana.

When French Montana shared a new remix of his single "Famous" featuring Maroon 5's Adam Levine in August, he wasn't trumpeting his A-list collaboration so much as a good cause. All of Montana's publishing profits on the track go to benefit the Suubi "Hope" Health Center in Uganda, which he helped build in 2017 and is working to expand and serve over 450,000 people, specifically mothers and children, in 58 villages. The single's video features the clinic's early building stages and a choreographed routine by Ugandan dancers Triple Ghetto Kids.

"If I don't help people, I'm just another rapper with a mic," French Montana told Billboard. "It's important for me to give back because I am passionate about the cases I stand for and identify with so many of the people I am helping through my music. Healthcare shouldn't be a privilege, it should be a right."

It was just the latest in a string of singles that have been released with a social cause attached. When BeyoncĂ© joined J. Balvin and Willy William on "Mi Gente" in 2017, the superstar donated her proceeds of the remix to hurricane and earthquake-relief charities including CEMA, UNICEF and Somos Una Voz, which benefits Mexico, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Logic's Grammy-nominated "1-800-273-8255" helped elevate the rapper to a new level of fame, hitting No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 while raising awareness for suicide prevention and mental-health crisis care.

Songs have become increasingly potent vehicles for change in the streaming era, as artists' ability to instantly tap into a fan base on social media has grown, says Marie Groark, executive director of Viacom nonprofit Get Schooled. "That's something that's new and makes their role in the work that much more powerful," she points out.

Tammy Brook, founder of FYI Brand Group, a brand-strategy firm with a social-impact division, first helped connect French Montana with the Ugandan charity in 2017 for his single "Unforgettable," creating a viral dance challenge and raising over $500,000 for the hospital. She also worked with DJ Khaled to tie his Major Key album to a campaign giving high school students "keys" to success. "Every celebrity we know is so focused on the greater good now and their social responsibility," says Brook, adding that President Donald Trump's election spurred many to action.

Pairing songs with social causes is also earning artists wider exposure. 21 Savage announced the financial literacy campaign tied to his single "Bank Account," for instance, with an oversized check on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, while scoring coverage on CNN, NBC Think and other outlets outside of the traditional music press.

"It really crosses [artists] over; it humanizes them, it shows a compassionate side to them," says Brook. "We're transitioning from an age when an artist could only perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live! or MTV's TRL to a place where they have couch time now, and they can actually talk about things that are meaningful. There's no money that can buy that value."

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of Billboard.