Media

Beatboxing at the Ballot Box

Art and politics blur at your local concert venue, where artists from Ani DiFranco to Pearl Jam are making voter turnout their mission.
"I never really cared that much about who was president," says Fat Mike, NOFX bassist and founder of Punkvoter, a coalition of musicians, labels and activists out to effect regime change in the White House through a series of Rock Against Bush tours and record releases. "I didn't think it really mattered. But everything changed for me during the 2000 election."

That was the year when about 100 million Americans who are eligible to vote, did not. The older demographic – mostly wealthy and white – dominated that election.

Consider that the government doesn't look much like America anymore: President George W. Bush's cabinet is the wealthiest in U.S. history, with over 80 percent millionaires and nearly half of them worth more than $10 million, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, puts it this way: "When you accept corporate contributions in the hundreds of thousands, you don't owe much to part-time schoolteachers or alternative rock journalists. You do owe something to the oil companies and the multinationals that put you where you are. And apathy is what these companies want; they want people to sit on the sideline and not realize that they are living agents of history. By either action or inaction, they will determine the present and the future."

Morello is also co-founder of Axis of Justice, a non-profit social justice organization that he formed with System of a Down's Serj Tankian. The Axis of Justice concert series is just one of many movements – like MoveOn.org's Vote For Change tour, Music For America's Voter X events, Ani DiFranco's Vote Dammit tour, and Punkvoter's Rock Against Bush Tour – formed by or working with musicians to help attract young people away from their Xboxes and into the voting booth on November 2.

The citizens who avoided the polls in 2000 like they were installments of an aborted Liza Minnelli reality TV show were primarily young people, single women and people of color. The voter mobilization groups are thirsty to reconnect the youth demographic to the political processes of a country that is often taken for granted. In fact, many of the musicians involved with these organizations claim that they understand better than anyone how young people feel about politics, mostly because they too are voting for the first time in 2004.

"I think that the younger generation we're targeting is going to turn out in record numbers," says Fat Mike. "Of course, Bush has his backers, but they're not counting on the new voters, and the youth vote just doesn't show up in polls. But I think we're looking pretty good. We just have to keep battling."

The 2000 wake-up call that Fat Mike experienced wasn't only felt by the punk community, but also the hip-hop nation so often ignored by both political parties.

"This is the first time I'll vote in an election," says El-P, the New York-bred hip-hop renaissance man behind the enormously popular and resolutely independent Definitive Jux label, which recently hosted a benefit for Music For America to counter the unpopular Republican National Convention presence in his native New York. "I'm just beaten down by it all. The worst thing you could do is not hedge your bets. At this point, being ambivalent out of fear and depression is far outweighed by the idea of putting in the minimal effort it takes to effect change."

Although that change seems to be the resounding theme among artists working to get young people involved in the 2004 election, it extends far past the growing desire to jettison Bush. Rather, artists involved with Punkvoter, Vote For Change, Music For America and more are primarily concerned with communicating to their millions of fans that the world won't change unless they actually do something about it.

"It's important for everyone to vote and be involved in the political process," explains Moby, who has championed progressive causes throughout his career. "Democracy only functions when people participate. It's particularly important for young people to be involved in the political process now, because the youth will inherit the country and the world."

It is that sense of growing responsibility that is forcing artists like El-P, Fat Mike and many more to realize that they – like their fans – can't in good conscience complain about the deteriorating state of American affairs without the kind of political participation Moby speaks of. Even when they're confronted with an overworked public looking to escape rather than encounter political sloganeering at concerts that sometimes cost an arm and a leg to attend.

"I think the opinion that dissent, art and politics shouldn't be mixed comes from those who just want their art to be entertainment, and that's totally respectable," confesses Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, who is on the bill with Pearl Jam in the Vote For Change concerts' blast through swing states in the first week of October. "I mean, you work all week to go see a show on the weekend to get away from the world, so the last thing you want to see onstage is someone ranting and raving about politics. But I feel that this moment in time is one where anyone with a voice should be using it."

Ani DiFranco has always mixed her politics with music. The singer-songwriter, who has variously put her energies into supporting women's reproductive rights, opposing the death penalty and encouraging tolerance, is putting her typically blunt style to work on voter turnout with the Vote Dammit! tour. She's enlisted the talent of Margaret Cho, as well as former presidential contenders Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean plus folk stalwarts the Indigo Girls.

Most artists involved in voter-mobilization efforts understand that the battle doesn't end when Bush leaves Washington for Crawford – for good. Indeed, many have expressed serious doubts that John Kerry can capably represent their needs and issues, which says less about the Democratic candidate himself and more about the hegemony of the two-party system in U.S. politics. Indeed, if you're looking for reasons for voter apathy, look no further than the lack of choices offered to the American public.

"Voter apathy is based on the fact that there are no candidates that represent the majority of the American people," argues Morello. "Both presidential and vice-presidential candidates are multimillionaires. If you were able to raise half a billion dollars or whatever it takes to mount a campaign these days, and ran for president on a platform of $15-an-hour minimum wage, human rights abroad, environmental protection at home, ending homelessness and education for everyone, you'd win in a landslide. But you can't win that election, because you can't raise that money. The doors to privilege and power are gated, and there's a bank teller there."

Inaction doesn't seem to be making sense to anyone this election year, especially since it is often the very youth who decide that their vote doesn't matter that are on the front lines of questionable wars fought often for corporate profit.

"It is the youth of this world that is being shipped around to fight wars that are not for freedom or safety, but for the Carlyle Group, Halliburton and the numerous other multinationals that have this administration in their back pocket," explains #2, bassist for Anti-Flag, a politically active punk group whose Bush-bashing "Terror Alert" was produced by Morello and released on Fat Mike's independent label in 2003. "It's crucial for us to be represented, because right now these candidates are not working for votes, but rather for the corporations that are funding them. That's not democracy, and it's time to take it back."

No matter who wins the election, one thing will never change: If the youth continue to stay away from the democratic process in 2004 as they did in 2000, there is no doubt that the White House will only get whiter and richer in the very near future. In the end, this battle is not about Democrats or Republicans, but rather Americans, especially those who do not believe their votes make any difference at all – - an odd belief considering that the presidency was indeed won in Florida by a margin of 537 votes. Even odder when you consider, as Morello does, that progressive change in America is implemented not by politicians, but rather by those ordinary American citizens that elect them.

"My heroes have not been people that have inhabited the Oval Office," Morello explains. "They've been people who have truly fought for change, from Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King to the countless unnamed, unnumbered civil rights workers, union members and activists who fought, sweat, worked and died to provide the rights that we enjoy today. And there's no difference between those people and the people reading this article right now. Average, ordinary citizens who have stood up for their rights and refused to tolerate injustice have been the engine of change throughout history."
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com, while finding the time to rant for Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, AOL and others. His first novel, The Dangerous Perhaps, should be done by the time the War on Terrorism is over.
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