As the drama of the presidential election played out in 2016, musicians were a constant presence on the campaign trail. Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear and Killer Mike drummed up support for Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, while Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, JAY-Z and Beyoncé all stumped for Hillary Clinton in the general election. “We were fully engulfed just trying to keep Donald Trump out,” recalls rapper Pusha T, who sat with vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine to discuss criminal justice reform at an October 2016 event.
Trump’s victory last November created an unexpected quandary. “People were in shock,” continues Pusha T. “It put everybody on pause.” Some stars seemed to turn away from politics, with Perry, for instance, shifting to a broader narrative of emotional healing for the release of her Witness album in June. But others have doubled down on using their platforms for social change -- often sharpening their focus on key policy issues like criminal justice reform, immigrant rights and climate change instead of the president himself.
While there wasn't one singular, high-profile anti-Trump anthem in 2017 to match YG and Nipsey Hussle’s searing 2016 song, “FDT,” many artists found more direct ways to advocate for the causes they support. “You see Chance the Rapper talk about racial injustice and the inequities in public education, donating to schools and showing up at city council [in Chicago],” says Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote. “You have Kesha on her album [Rainbow] talking about sexual harassment, misogyny and the power that women have to create change. JAY-Z authored an op-ed [in The New York Times] getting into criminal justice reform. You’re seeing a lot of artists step up.”
Activists say issue-oriented efforts can help lay groundwork for long-term political engagement -- something that’s crucial in America, where voter turnout remains relatively low, particularly outside of presidential races. “If you’re just working to elect a candidate, a lot of times the momentum is over after Election Day,” says Jessica George, executive director of the nonprofit group Revolutions Per Minute, which helps strategize artists’ activism and philanthropy. “If I’m organizing around an issue, I can inform people where candidates stand; after Election Day, we can follow pieces of legislation. That’s a pathway to be involved throughout the entire process.”
One obstacle to action is the constant drumbeat of bad news. “Artists understand that now is a climate that you have to clap back at,” says Public Enemy’s Chuck D. “This is not a time when it’s fun and games and nothing to say.” But with so many headlines competing for attention, choosing which issue to engage with can be overwhelming for artists and fans alike.
“There’s a general [sense of] not knowing what to do because there are so many uphill battles right now and unhinged, very direct racism, sexism and classism at every level,” says Victoria Ruiz, lead singer of the firebrand punk group Downtown Boys. She would like to see individual efforts from artists lead toward more effective collective action, but, she acknowledges, “It’s hard to figure out how to collectively mobilize when you are dealing with family members being in unsafe situations, or you are in unsafe situations when it comes to immigration or wages being cut or sexism in the workplace.”
After the horrific mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival in October, many looked to artists from that genre to advocate for some form of gun control. Pop artists like Lady Gaga used social media to voice support for gun regulations, but with the notable exceptions of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, few name-brand, commercially successful country acts have been willing to take a public stance on the issue. Raul Malo -- lead singer of long-running country outfit The Mavericks and an outspoken critic of Trump’s anti-Muslim travel bans -- sees this as another sign that the music community has work left to do to improve its capacity for collective action.
“I’m really disappointed that more country artists that were there that night have not come out in favor of sensible gun control,” says Malo. “That might ruffle some feathers. But if they all do it, that’s a different thing.”
Malo acknowledges the importance of considering one’s audience: “If you’re badgering [listeners] with political opinions [and] that wall goes up, we’re back to square one,” he says. But he nonetheless views ruffling at least a few feathers as a crucial part of an artist’s mandate. “One of the things I hate the most is when people tell me, ‘You’re a singer, just shut up and sing,’” he says. “Really? Everybody else has an opinion; why not me? Artists traditionally have always kept the conversation going, whether they upset fans or not.
“At this point,” he adds, “I’m not going to keep quiet, no matter what.”