More than anything, this election and the fact that it’s happening during violent times, has made everybody nationwide and all around the world sit up and look into who America is made up of. The Clinton base (and non-base, for that matter), is understandable; she inspires people as much as she incites them to hate her. It is the Sanders and Trump campaigns that are shining a light into sections of the population that have been, it would seem, glossed over or not ever accounted for. Chief among these are the whites who feel threatened by a growing loss of ethnicity, immigrants—legal or otherwise, and millennials who have been accused of being political on social media to the exclusion of actual action.
The music world, too wants to make sense of these new bases. We will look first at the ongoing effort by Rock The Vote, a non-profit agency that has been instrumental in motivating and guiding young, first-time voters since the 1990s. The second project we will look into has Michael Friedman, a music composer who sets out to interview voters and sets their own words and stories to melody, verbatim.
Rock The Vote plays an activist’s role, in that they strive to reach the young in their own space (online, events), using their own language (“Voting Is the party”), and getting their own icons to talk to them (John Legend, Jennifer Lopez, and the like). It is non-partisan and as a banner on its website suggests, helps the 12,000 individuals who turn 18 every day, get registered to vote. The website is simple to navigate, audience-appropriately skewed for a mobile experience and with well-chosen menu titles, such as “Find your Elected Officials,” which gives you your federal and state officials by asking you to fill out a street address.
One music video has rock/rap artists grooving to “Turn Out for What”—each celebrity announces why they’ll be voting: education, reproductive rights, gay rights, marriage inequality, and so on. The song is a re-recording of the hit (120M views on YouTube) “Turn Down For What” by Li’l Jon and DJ Snake. Rock the Vote’s version has Jon on the phone with actress Whoopi Goldberg en route to his local voting station. There he meets and sings along with more artists such as television producer Lena Dunham and multi-artist Devendra Banhart. (Incidentally, Banhart’s not desi, his Venezuelan mother and American father were followers of an Indian guru when he was born.)
Rock the Vote was founded as a response to the 1980’s censorship campaign by “parents, politicians, and police” against artists’ use of explicit language. Such a mixture of art, organization, and activism could only have been the brainchild of somebody with that specific background. Indeed, the founder Jeff Ayeroff worked to market artists such as Madonna, Dire Straits and Prince, and then later, helped launch the Virgin US label. Rock The Vote’s first campaign in the early 1990s showed Madonna wrapped in an American flag.
Moving on from activism to music documentaries: In February this year, The New Yorker Radio Hour aired Friedman’s “Mock Caucus.” The lyrics include:
I moved here when I was 10
Now I am 18
We started a Mock Caucus at school
To hear different opinions
That guy Andy listens to his father,
Who listens to Rush Limbaugh a lot
Sure, we’re in Iowa
Our school is 97% white.
Mock Caucus goes on to describe how when somebody greeted “Merry Christmas,” the response was “We’re Muslim.” After an account of few more such instances, the voter thought that being politically correct has encouraged people to not have strong opinions. This, according to this voter, had led to frustration and violence.
“Ballad of a Trump Supporter” aired in April, and has Friedman mouthing a South Carolina man’s words. The voter is in his sixties, talking about a youth spent hunting, being brought up by a black nanny, using the N word, glad that the confederate flag was brought down at the State Capitol grounds but confesses that he has it at home for nostalgia sake. He is happy that Trump has upset the “apple-cart.”
Listening to the lyrics is a surprising experience. The melody is barely one, and musically, it’s not even worth a review. But the power is in that the lyrics hit home. Turns out, it’s easier to understand a voter’s psyche by listening to a verbatim account sung by a third party, rather than say, through a television interview.
Friedman’s music serves as a record of how this time was lived by voters from various strata. The irony of the policy on illegal immigrants—the making of it, its enforcers, and the people who live it, is best summed up in a few lines taken from Friedman’s “Undocumented” which aired in March:
Born in Mexico, grew up in United States
Separated from my mother for 21 years, she stayed back…
When I was 18, my dad got deported
At 18, my first job, got fired at 20
At 22 I got fired again
My documents didn’t match up,
In Arizona, the cop asked for my ID,
All I had was my Mexican passport
Which you never show a policeman
In my wallet, I found a Sam’s (Club)
card and showed it to him
He said “Okay, yeah,
If you buy in bulk,
you must be an American.”
Check out the online version of this article for digital extras, including podcasts of voters’ verse.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music, and avidly tracks inbtersecting points