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How Bernie Sanders Is Rocking the Vote With the Help of a DJ & Former Punk Rock Promoter

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Bernie Sanders stands with rock band Vampire Weekend's lead singer Ezra Koenig after speaking at the University of Iowa on Jan. 30, 2016, ahead of the Iowa Caucus.   

"Music is such a great addition when you're talking about this candidacy with so much energy & excitement," campaign staffer Rania Batrice tells Billboard.

Looking out over a 20,000-plus-person crowd in Brooklyn's Prospect Park on Sunday afternoon, Grizzly Bear singer Ed Droste could not contain his astonishment. "I have for the past week been a surrogate for the Sanders campaign," Droste told the throng, which included everyone from local teenagers to aged itinerant hippies stretching as far as the eye could see. "I have truly never seen anything like this in my entire life."

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The band members -- wearing matching Bernie Sanders T-shirts -- were on hand along with rap icons EPMD to pump up voters before Tuesday's Democratic primary in New York, where the the Vermont senator is trailing rival Hillary Clinton. It was just the latest example of how New York's music scene has represented for Sanders in a big way over the past few weeks, from full-throated Coney Island endorsements by former R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe to a four-song warm-up set from Vampire Weekend at a massive 27,000-person rally in the city's Washington Square Park last Wednesday.

But just how did the Beethoven-loving 74-year-old folk fan gather such an impressive roster of bold-name supporters to help his New York push? With the help of two veterans of grassroots organizing who have been wrangling -- and energizing -- musicians from Brooklyn and beyond to stump for Sanders and get young voters to the polls on Tuesday.

"The original idea was, 'How do we get artists to engage and be involved in their online and social networks and in their communities -- and how do we think about new styles of fundraising at different events with these artists who have been singing, writing and thinking about social justice issues for years?" said Scott Goodstein, the co-founder of Artists for Bernie and a longtime social activist who also rallied the creative class for the 2008 Obama campaign.

Wednesday's gig was just the latest amped-up endorsement by the rock community for the Brooklyn-born social Democrat, coming on the heels of earlier pop-up campus shows by Vampire Weekend, a strong endorsement from Calle 13 leader Residente and Monday night's (April 18) Hunter's Point rally in Long Island featuring TV on the Radio. Sanders is going to need all the help they can drum up in the leadup to Tuesday's crucial primary, where he's currently trailing rival Hillary Clinton by more than 10 points.

 

"We are happy to have the opportunity to do our part in getting him to the White House," TV on the Radio guitarist/singer Kyp Malone told Billboard. "If we can help reach people who don't yet know why there's such a mounting excitement around this campaign then we've rocked with purpose."

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Punk rock promoter-turned-youth-focused political operative Goodstein has spent the past decade on the forefront of digital strategy for political campaigns and progressive causes, all while using his extensive music-business connections to land headliners for his candidates. From his time as an aspiring musician/promoter at Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat, to a stint working with bands like Korn at Sony Music and co-founding Punk Voter in 2004 with Fat Mike from NOFX, Cleveland native Goodstein has searched for a way to mix his music expertise with his yearn to shake up the system.

That's taken him from his gig as external online director for the Obama for America campaign in 2008, to working with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the NAACP and co-founding Rock Against Bush in 2004.

While Clinton has the support of such mainstream acts as Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato and Jennifer Lopez, among others, a quick look at the Artists for Bernie page provides a heavy dose of where the "cool kids" in the creative community have landed this election cycle: Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Killer Mike, Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), Alex Ebert (Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros), Flea and Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Scarface (Geto Boys) are among dozens of other singers, writers and actors who've pledged to back the senator.

And the past two weeks' flurry of New York shows are a culmination of a movement that's been building for more than six months thanks to the groundwork laid by a trio of Sanders campaign staffers and their army of volunteers and co-workers.

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"We're taught from childhood that our freedom as Americans is inextricably linked to our living in a democracy," said TV on the Radio's Malone. "Yet in our lifetime, we've seen democratic ideals weakened and the rise of oligarchy. Bernie Sanders is the candidate least beholden to corporate interests, least beholden to the 1 percent, least beholden to the status quo."

Working with Vermont-based DJ Luis Calderin -- the Sanders campaign's youth, culture and arts manager -- Goodstein said he tapped into his network of socially engaged artists like Malone and his bandmates, signing up early adopters such as the MC5's Wayne Kramer, The Big Short director Adam McKay and Jill Sobule, among others. By the time the Artists site launched in September, more than 125 singers, DJs, actors and other creatives had signed a "very simple letter" pledging their support for the campaign.

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"At the same time, our online team was building and we had artists like Killer Mike who were following Bernie on Twitter, and when Mike played a big festival in Iowa, we connected him to our locals there, got him a 4X Bernie T-shirt, and he put his support out there," Goodstein told Billboard. Sanders helped introduce Mike's Run the Jewels in a video message at this weekend's Coachella festival.

That kind of organic networking got the ball rolling, with Goodstein and Calderin -- a 20-year veteran party DJ who has worked with brands such as Burton Snowboards and American Eagle Outfitters on youth lifestyle marketing efforts -- reaching out to friends and friends-of-friends to make introductions, or interested star volunteers simply showing up at Sanders campaign offices and asking what they could do to help.

Veteran campaign staffer Rania Batrice has been in the trenches for more than a decade, working on local, state and national campaigns, including John Edwards' 2008 presidential bid and a short stint in Iowa with onetime Democratic presidential hopeful Jim Webb in 2015. Now she's the Sanders campaign's national director of surrogates, which means Batrice handles a lot of the outreach to musicians when it comes to putting together bills like the Vampire Weekend gig.

"We approached Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio because they all have great ties to New York, and music is such a great addition when you're talking about this candidacy with so much energy and excitement," Batrice told Billboard about the artists donating their time to help Sanders in New York. While the campaign pays for the travel, meals and lodging of the acts they reach out to, plenty of musicians also offer their services on an unsolicited basis, and Batrice said her team tries to find as many slots for them as possible. "We've had some up-and-comers play different events, and since I've taken over, we've never said no to anyone unless it doesn't fit the nature of the rally or we don't have the capability to do music," she said.

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One veteran who was inspired to get on the Sanders train and donate his time is Ben Folds. The singer/songwriter's 16-year-old daughter, Gracie Folds, opened up for the Chili Peppers at a February show (playing one of Sanders' favorite jams on ukulele, "This Land Is Your Land") that was organized by the band and which inspired Folds to hop onboard in a Facebook post a few weeks later.

"The thing about a grassroots artists is you have to be very pragmatic from the first day you set foot in a van to play a show," said Folds. "You have to have high ideals and see your endeavors all the way through... and I've never seen anything like this before [in politics]. It's like Nirvana or something. I think it's incredible and it's absolutely the real deal."