DNC Chair Tom Perez on How the Global Popularity of 'Despacito' Is an Example of 'What Music Can Do' in Troubled Times

Tom Perez

Tom Perez speaks after being nominated as the next US secretary of labor by President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington on March 18, 2013.

From defending DACA to helping earthquake victims in Mexico to aiding Puerto Rico’s recovery from the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria, there have been a number of events that have galvanized support of the Latino community over the last few weeks. And one of the most politically visible Latinos offering support has been Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, a Dominican American who grew up in Buffalo, New York.

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Formerly the Sec. of Labor under President Obama, Perez, 56, has dedicated himself to supporting Democratic candidates across the country while continuing to advocate for civil rights. Earlier this week, after a roundtable for the Democratic New Jersey Lt. Governor candidate Sheila Oliver (where he weighed in on the recent Alabama senate race by calling Roy Moore "Jesse Helms on steroids"), Perez sat down with Billboard to discuss how music can mitigate nativistic national and global trends, why a song like "Despacito" is important now, and the "moral imperative" musicians have to use their voice.

How has your and your family's background— immigrants from the Dominican Republic— influenced your interest in public service?

I’m a proud Dominican American.  My folks always taught me that it’s important to keep the ladder down and that to whom much is given much is expected.  That’s why I have pursued a career in public service.  I can’t think of a better way to give back what this nation gave to us than to try to make sure that opportunity exists for everyone.  

I learned much from my grandfather who had a horrible conundrum of having to decide whether to speak out against a brutal dictator, Trujillo. He risked putting [relatives] in harms way by choosing to speak out and get kicked out [of the Dominican Republic] because it was a moral imperative.  And so I have always tried to understand and live that moral imperative— that we’re at our best when everybody has got a fair shot.  And I think what our immigrant heritage teaches us is that if you blow out your neighbor’s candle it doesn’t make your candle shine brighter. We should making sure that candles can shine to their greatest potential everywhere.

In a recent congratulatory video to the makers of the record-breaking Spanish language song "Despacito", Scooter Braun, a music executive whom you know, and who works with Justin Bieber, shared a message for President Trump: "Enjoy the Spanish on the radio.” The sentiment seems to spotlight what's happening in our country that on the one hand diverse communities—thanks to music and other entertainment media—are being celebrated by society while at the same time being disparaged and marginalized by society.

I actually spent some time with Scooter about a month ago and we talked about "Despacito."  He shared with me his great pride at the fact that a song that has been able to bridge so many demographics has Spanish in it and it was then that I learned about his great pride at having Donald Trump have to understand that this is America.  That’s what music has the potential to do. Look at the history of music and it’s always been [this way], especially during the civil rights movement. Look at the movie Round Midnight [the 1986 drama based on 20th century jazz musicians Lester Young and Bud Powell]—it’s not just about the challenges confronting jazz artists here but abroad as well. What I’ve always seen about music is its storytelling and it’s got a capacity to bring people together or at least make people think.  That’s why I spend time with people like Scooter.

When I was in the White House working at the Labor Department I worked with a guy named Ken Bennett and I got to know him a little bit.  And he was telling me about his family and he said, “I’ve got a son who is hoping to take off in music.”  I said, “What’s his name?”  And he said, “Chance.”  And I didn’t think anything of it at the time. What I love about Chance the Rapper, what I love about Lin-Manuel [Miranda], what I love about Cardi B and all these other folks is that they’re using their platform to tell a story.  And to challenge America to live up to its highest ideals.  Look at what Chance is doing for the school system and it’s been truly impressive.  What struck me about him was his humility. He hasn’t lost sight of where he has come from.  And what impressed me about Scooter was his ability to see— I mean the notion that Justin Bieber sings in Spanish, let’s just say that’s not intuitively obvious to the average person—but Scooter’s ability to look around corners and [be open] to the artist’s willingness to be edgy, I think that’s what we need right now.  We need bold leadership to bring America back to its first principles of diversity inclusion and opportunity for everyone in every ZIP Code and music is that vehicle to summon our better angels.  Music is that vehicle and always has been a vehicle to challenge us to build a better America.

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But do you think it’s strange that despite the current popularity of music with meaning and music that celebrates diversity there is also such vocal opposition of these diverse voices and communities.  

What we’re seeing right now is a nativist virus that is a global virus.  Look at what’s happened in so many countries around the world whether it’s Hungary and if you look at [Prime Minister] Orban, Orban is Trump. The parallels are frightening.  You look at Turkey and their movement in the wrong direction, you look at the Philippines and [President] Duterte and you look at the Brexit vote and you look at the most recent vote in Germany [in which the far right party made national gains] and there’s a global virus of nativism fueled in no small measure by a sense that people are fearful.  I think the biggest freedom at risk right now in the United States and elsewhere is what F.D.R. called the freedom from fear.  And that’s where I think music can play such an important role. I mean what Scooter did with the [hurricane relief] telethon in a week's time was remarkable and it was a reminder that we’re at our best when we’re working together.  We’re at our best when we put hope in front of fear.  I’ve memorized Hamilton.  I’m going to see it for a third time.  I’m about to go see In the Heights, a local production, for a fourth time because I love Lin-Manuel.  What he said in Hamilton, one of the songs in Hamilton is: history has its eyes on us.  And I really do believe history has its eyes on us right now and I think music can be a good reminder of that and a reminder to take a step back and ask the question who are we and what do we stand for as a nation?  That’s what I’m trying to do as the head of the Democratic Party is reach out to folks and demonstrate what our values are.

How will music play a role in the DNC?

Well, I’m acutely aware of the fact that we have to do a better job of connecting with people.  There’s a lot of people that have said I don’t know what the Democratic Party stands for.  So we have to do a number of things, number one is lead with our values.  I mean we’ve been out there on DACA, we’ve been out there on climate, we’ve been out there on women’s reproductive health, we’ve been out there on so many other issues where Donald Trump is trying to turn the clock back, most recently now contraception.  I mean the list is seemingly endless of turn back the clock moments.  And so we’ve got to lead with our values and articulate our values and then we also need not only the bold message of optimism an opportunity and endless possibilities, which I still believe embodies America, but we also need messengers. Artists have a way of connecting with people’s hearts.

What music are you listening to? What music do you like?

The song I heard most frequently on our family vacation was "Despacito." [Also] Lin-Manuel's new song for Puerto Rico [Almost a Prayer] and [on the same playlist] there were three or four songs in a row of proud Latin stars and Cardi B's was one as well.

I grew up in the era of the ‘70s. People like Santana were very influential, the Bruce Springsteen’s of the world were very influential.  And I’ve always enjoyed jazz, so when I lived in Boston I used to go to this night club every so often that had a lot of Berklee {College of Music] students and so got to watch some wonderful folks in their early stages.  The thing I love about jazz generally and Latin jazz and other sub genres is that when you go to listen and you look in the room it’s a very diverse audience.  And in a world in which we otherwise see a lot of self-segregation music has been a uniter.

More recently I have a nephew who is an aspiring rapper, Alex, he lives in Boston.  His show name is Pauze because the Z is to acknowledge Perez.  And he hasn’t quite gotten Chance the Rapper’s fame or Daddy Yankee, but I’d like to put in a shameless pitch.

Pitch away. Does he rap in English and in Spanish?

He raps mostly in English and in Spanish with words that when my kids were younger I had trouble letting them listen to. He’s done really well in the Boston area in contests he’s entered.  

The past few weeks have seen terrible news from Puerto Rico to Las Vegas. What do you think music artists' roles should be around these tragedies?

Musicians have a capacity to organize and bring people otherwise at loggerheads together and that’s such an important function.  Musicians have the capacity to hold folks accountable, hold leaders accountable in part because of their mastery of social media. I visited Puerto Rico and it broke my heart.  The governor is doing his best, the mayors are doing their best and they’re in a horrible conundrum because the reality is the United States hasn’t done enough. Puerto Ricans are Americans and they shouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens.  And the challenge is when the governor or mayor or anyone else there says what I've just stated in plain terms, when they speak truth to power, then a Twitter tirade emerges from the Trump administration and it puts their aid at risk.  That’s not leadership.  That’s why musicians can play an important role in bringing America together and reminding us of what our values are just like Lin-Manuel just did with his most recent song.

I’m acutely aware as we try to get the next generation engaged that we’ve got to meet that potential voter where we find them. For that potential voter their life and music are inextricably intertwined and if we’re able to engage these validators and influencers that is so important.  You see the attacks on some athletes that are trying to exercise rights.  So I understand that for a number of these artists it’s not without risk, but history has its eyes on us right now. As Dr. King said we will live to regret not only the horrific acts of bad people but the appalling silence of good people. So I’ve been so heartened and inspired by the loud proud actions of the Lin-Manuel’s of the world in Puerto Rico, Chance the Rapper in Chicago and elsewhere, Daddy Yankee [who has been on the ground in Puerto Rico delivering aid] and others who are using their platform because they understand they are also part of this American fabric and they, by virtue of their remarkable success, have a unique capacity to move the ball down the field.

What about more general political activism, for example, DACA? Some artists like Selena Gomez have demonstrated their support for Dreamers via social media. Does it help?

Absolutely. I mean DACA, you look at the face of DACA recipients they were our first responders.  They are Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, Lance Corporal Gutierrez was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala; orphaned at eight; came to this country undocumented; got his status adjusted; so loved this adopted country that he enlisted in the US Army.  He was one of the first casualties in the most recent war in Iraq and he got his citizenship posthumously.  The Lance Corporal Gutierrez’s of the world are every bit as American as of my children who were born in America.

Musicians have a unique capacity to shine a light on this because what Puerto Rico, Vegas, Harvey, DACA, all of these have in common is there’s a moral imperative.  It's not just an economic imperative, it’s not just a national security imperative, there’s a moral imperative to lead.  I’m sick and tired of hearing people say my thoughts and prayers are with you and then they vote against everything that would actually improve the lives of the people who have been victimized that they purport to be praying for.  And what we need from political leaders is action and musicians have a unique capacity to foment that action. Musicians have a capacity to get people out there to vote because the most important thing I think we can do as a DNC is to engage those 60 million people who sat it out [in this last election] and give them a reason to vote.


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