Will Touring Musicians Follow Hollywood In Protesting States Passing Anti-Abortion Laws?

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Pussy Riot poses for photos backstage during Ladyland Festival at Avant Gardner on June 28, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York.

While Pussy Riot hosts a protest rally in Birmingham, Alabama, other artists have been vocal on social media against the abortion laws -- but so far, it’s unclear what more may happen.

Pussy Riot is unlikely to singlehandedly overturn Alabama's new abortion ban, but one thing the activist Russian punk band knows how to do is draw attention to it: A rally and protest tonight (July 11) at Birmingham's Saturn nightclub will feature masks of all kinds, posters, banners and "the whole Pussy Riot mob," as frontwoman Nadya Tolokonnikova says by phone.

"We definitely don't think we're going to solve the issue. It's just our small gesture of support that makes sense to us. Our goal is to encourage people, give them awareness and share energy -- we have a lot."   

Since Alabama, Georgia and other states, mostly in the South, passed abortion bans earlier this year designed to undermine and overturn the Supreme Court's 46-year-old Roe vs. Wade ruling, pop megastars have lashed out on social media. Rihanna posted a photo of 25 white, male Alabama lawmakers who voted for the ban and called them "idiots making decisions for WOMEN in America"; Lady Gaga called the bill "an outrage" and "heinous"; Lizzo compared "shit like this" to The Handmaid's Tale; Bon Iver, Travis Scott, indie label Secretly Group and singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers were among many who publicized donations to Planned Parenthood and the Yellowhammer Fund.

So far, Netflix, as well as several other major Hollywood studios, have announced that they would reconsider filming projects in states such as Georgia if those laws go into effect. But aside from a burst of activism at the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala., in mid-May, artists touring the relevant states -- particularly major music markets such as Atlanta and New Orleans -- have been largely silent.

"We have not seen any pushback in regards to the anti-abortion law being passed," says Marcia Powell, marketing communications manager for the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth, Ga. "Summers are slow here until school is back in, so no one has come through and talked about it on stage," says Velena Vego, a manager and talent buyer for Athens, Ga.'s 40 Watt Club. David T. Viecelli, Chicago agent for Arcade Fire, Joanna Newsom and Pavement, adds, "With this one particular issue, these abortion laws in these handful of states, it hasn't come up yet."

One challenge for pro-choice music activists is centering a protest message on such a wide geographic region. When, in 2016, North Carolina passed its "bathroom law," disallowing transgender people from using public restrooms of their choice, Bruce Springsteen and others boycotted the state (which removed the law a year later). Madonna and others refused to tour in Colorado for years after voters passed an early-1990s law -- later struck down in court -- removing LGBTQ people from discrimination protections. "That is definitely a challenge," says Brayden King, a Northwestern University management and organizations professor who studies the effects of social movements on political change. "There are lots of people to blame, and the more diffuse the blame is, the more difficult it is to get them to take any action."

Still, many in the concert business have been intensely discussing how they can draw attention to the new laws. Artists are "very attuned to it," says Samantha Kirby Yoh, William Morris Endeavor's head of East Coast music, and agents, managers and promoters are working closely with Planned Parenthood, the Yellowhammer Fund and other reproductive-rights groups about how best to make political statements. Yoh encourages "simple steps," like distributing "1973" T-shirts to The Lumineers, Vampire Weekend, Diplo and others to wear at Hangout, marking the year the Supreme Court ruled on Roe vs. Wade. "If you give musicians an easy way to interact with the audience, and raise money, they're very eager to do it," adds Amelia Bauer, president of Noise for Now, a 2-year-old Santa Fe, N.M., group that helps touring musicians raise money and awareness for abortion access and reproductive rights.

(Kacey Musgraves, Lizzo, Billie Eilish and other top artists who've publicly criticized the recent anti-abortion state laws have upcoming tour dates in New Orleans and Atlanta, but they were unavailable for comment for this story. Top promoters Live Nation and AEG also wouldn't comment.)

Although he is not a WME client, Matty Healy of The 1975 used his Hangout platform to declare Alabama lawmakers "misogynistic wankers," adding, "The reason I'm so angry is because I don't believe [the ban] is about the preservation of life, I believe it's about the controlling of women."

"It makes me want to go there more," says British rock singer Yungblud, who plays Atlanta's Variety Playhouse in late September. "It makes me want to make noise. It makes me want to not let this atrocity be swept under the rug. I will definitely be making my frustration heard, because I think every single person in my audience will be feeling exactly the same way."

One sensitive issue for musicians -- particularly country stars who perform for largely conservative, anti-abortion audiences -- is the fear of reprisals from fans or radio programmers. Simply put, everybody's wary of turning into the Dixie Chicks, whose string of hits dried up after the band criticized President George W. Bush before the Iraq War in 2003.

But Pussy Riot's Tolokonnikova has no sympathy for that point of view. "Your fans love you for your integrity, and who you are, and if you really, deeply care about something, don't pretend that you don't," she says. "Yes, maybe you will lose somebody, but you will gain more people who will admire your courage and strength. You will definitely not be killed if you go to Alabama. You will not go to jail. It's not exactly Russia."