After the mass murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the impassioned speech of senior Emma Gonzalez at a gun-control rally Feb. 17 drew worldwide attention as she called out legislators backed by the National Rifle Association.
“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats, funded by the NRA, telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this — we call BS!,” she declared. “They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence — we call BS!”
Gonzalez closed her speech ended with her three most powerful words: If you agree, she said, “register to vote!”
Now, long-established music activist groups are embracing the call to step up voter registration efforts in the wake of the Parkland shootings, in response to the call from Gonzalez and her peers.
Like their peers nationwide, the Parkland students have grown up immersed in popular culture. Yet they also have received an education that included an emphasis on critical thinking skills, and social and civic participation, according to the curriculum of the Broward County public schools. They understand: Culture inspires change. Laws achieve change. Voters choose the direction of change.
“These kids are getting something that a lot of adults tend to miss — that change starts with voting,” says Andy Bernstein, executive director of Headcount.org, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that registers voters at concerts and works with musicians and fans to promote democratic participation.
“Emma Gonzalez is a fierce leader for her generation and our country,” says Carolyn DeWitt, executive director of Rock the Vote, which has been registering voters for over 25 years, adding more than eight million voters to the rolls during that time. “To take this moment of pain and grief and channel it into building political power to make her state and our country safer is heroic.
“This should convince anyone,” added DeWitt, “that young people are bold, smart and willing to take action to hold their elected officials accountable. A vote on election day is more powerful than any lobby group, including the NRA.”
Music, of course, has a long history of connection with political activism, but particularly with voter registration efforts to drive social change. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, with its rich musical legacy, was focused in part on passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
One prominent media figure and activist recently drew a link between between the civil rights movement and the crusade against gun violence by the students in Florida.
“These inspiring young people remind me of the Freedom Riders of the 60s who also said we’ve had ENOUGH and our voices will be heard,” tweeted Oprah Winfrey on Feb. 20, pledging $500,000 to support the March 24 “March of Our Lives” protest in Washington, D.C.. She echoed support promised by George and Amal Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Just how important is voter registration, followed by participation at the polls?
“Of the more than 120 million votes cast in the 2016 election, 107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the election,” the Washington Post reported on Nov. 11, 2016. The paper cited “razor-thin margins” which determined the winner-takes-all allocation of Electoral College votes in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Yet as many as 35 percent of eligible citizens in the United States were not registered to vote in the 2016 election, according to U.S. Census figures. (Other researchers estimate the share of non-registered eligible citizens is closer to 21 percent).
A number of nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations have taken on the challenge of increasing voter registration and many of those groups have ties to musicians or the music business.
Respect My Vote is a voter mobilization drive and one of several campaigns of the Hip Hop Caucus, an organization which has drawn the support of artists including 2 Chainz, B.o.B., Ciara, Common, Drake, JAY-Z, Puff Daddy and others.
National Voter Registration Day also has drawn music business support. Brian Miller, who is executive director of Nonprofit VOTE, the managing partner and fiscal agent for National Voter Registration Day, explains that the event — taking place this year on Sept 25 — is “a single day of nonpartisan coordinated field, online, and media actions to raise awareness about voter registration opportunities, and to ensure that as many eligible voters register or update their registration as possible.
“We bring together a wide array of organizations to ensure the holiday is a success,” continues Miller, “including youth-oriented groups like Alliance for Youth Action, Young Invisibles, Rock the Vote and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, to tech and media firms like BET, CMT, MTV, Univision and Facebook, to major nonprofits like United Way Worldwide and NALEO Education Fund.”
Headcount.org has registered close to 500,000 voters since it was founded in 2004, and has worked with more than 100 artists, according to Bernstein. This spring, the organization is registering voters at tour dates by an array of musicians, including The Avett Brothers, MGMT, Lucius, HINDS, The Decemberists, Franz Ferdinand, Chromeo, and David Byrne. “Then, in the summer, we’ll have a very large presence with Dead & Company, Phish and Dave Matthews Band,” says Bernstein.
Specifically in response to the Parkland shootings, Bernstein says, “We are talking to organizers of the March 24th “March for Your Life” protest about having voter registration stations in every city where a march will be held.
“We’re also pushing out information about what states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register” to vote. HeadCount already has a large presence in Florida,” he adds. “Next week we’ll be at Dead & Company in Ft. Lauderdale (Feb. 27) and the Okeechobee Music Festival a few days later. At both events we organize a `Participation Row’ activism village.
“In a world where the median age of the Senate is 61, it’s very important that young folks can make their voices heard,” adds Bernstein. “There are more Millennials eligible to vote than Baby Boomers. When young people encourage their peers to get active, that’s when movements really take shape. So in a lot of ways we just have get out of their way. We give them the tools to organize, but it’s kids like Emma who will really lead.”
Rock the Vote, created in 1990 in response to the censorship of hip-hop artists, had a particularly high-profile launch, guided by record executives including Jeff Ayeroff, who still serves on its board of directors, and promoted by MTV. It was “the first organization to identify young people as a voting bloc with the power to change our country,” says DeWitt.
The day of Emma Gonzalez’s powerful speech, Rock the Vote tweeted her declarations—”we call BS!”—to its followers. “We agree with Emma,” the organization tweeted, “It doesn’t have to be like this. It starts with having the courage to say ‘enough,’ and then taking action.”
This thread is an excerpt of a speech given by Stoneman Douglas student Emma Gonzalez at a large rally earlier today where she addressed the heartache of her community & the anger felt by young people everywhere at government inaction as young lives are ended.
Read on & share. pic.twitter.com/nV80KVv03X
— Rock the Vote (@RockTheVote) February 17, 2018
Rock the Vote has a long history of such action. It partners with other nonprofits, youth brands, and influencers to build campaigns “that will inspire this next generation of voters to build the future they want for themselves and their communities,” says DeWitt.
The organization maintains a state-of-the-art online voter registration platform that it makes available for free to any partner who wants to register voters online. Since its development in 1999, more than 30,000 partners have used the platform to register voters, and the group also offers a toolkit for how to host a voter registration drive.
“Rock the Vote advocates for voting rights policies, such as pre-registration and online voter registration, that increases young people’s accessible to democracy,” says DeWitt. “Young voters are disproportionately affected by policies that make participation more difficult so we actively advocate for inclusive voting laws.”
“We are especially looking to how to best we can support the students organizing the `March for Our Lives,’” says DeWitt. “In this moment, we want to follow their lead and be ready to back their efforts however we can.”
And DeWitt offers a message for Emma Gonzalez:
“First, we are sorry that this continues to happen in our country,” she says. “Your strength has inspired millions across our country. You have shown the world what leadership and speaking truth to power looks like. Be compassionate to yourself. You have the support of a nation. This year, we have an opportunity to shape the direction of our country by electing leaders who will stand up for our values and fight for progress.”