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The New Activism In Music

Neil Young has been called many things, though prophet has never been one of them. Perhaps it’s time to add that to the Rock And Roll Hal Of Fame legend’s many titles. In December of 2016 I spoke to Young right after the last presidential election and he predicted the rise of activism we have seen in the weeks following the death of George Floyd.

“I think that everything that’s happening is going to make activism and independence and people’s voice all just grow and grow and grow. I think that now the youth of today has got a target just like in the ‘60s the youth had a target. It was something in authority that was going in the wrong direction and the youth are all against it,” he told me. “They see things the authorities don’t see, they care about climate change, they care about equality and people living together and all races, all colors, all languages being able to coexist. That’s what America is all about, it’s not about paranoia and hiding behind walls. That’s not what America is about. So I think this is a really robust moment for activism and the like. This situation in history, it comes around in cycles. The last time I saw it was the ‘60s.”

One other thing Young foretold was the merging of music and activism. “I think for activism we’re going to be really nourished by what’s going on and people are gonna come together with music and social media and feeling and trying to keep the ideals of the country and do everything they can to preserve that which they believe in, that they’ve believed in their whole life, many of them have fought for,” he said.

But for music to make a difference during this time, his one-time Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young band mate Grahma Nash told me in April of 2017 the next wave of artists needed to pick up the fight.

” We need the younger generation. People like me, Jackson [Browne] and Bonnie [Raitt], we’ve been doing benefits for 40 years and we need the younger generation, particularly people like Lady Gaga, with what’s she got, 80 million people following her on Instagram or Facebook,” he said. “We need those people that have incredible followings to be able to take a stand and bring information to their followers.”

Nash got his wish. Two of the biggest artists on social media, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, have been two of the most vocal in the chorus for social change in the last few months. Swift, in particular, has been a revelation. And it has been noted by her activist elders.

 I just spoke with John Densmore of the Doors for an upcoming podcast and when we spoke of Swift’s impressive call to action of late he absolutely concurred she has been a valued and impassioned voice for change.

On May 29, Swift made international news when she tweeted to the president, “After stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency, you have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence? ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts’??? We will vote you out in November.”

To date, the tweet has received over two million likes. Swift, who has over 86 million followers, calling out Trump directly is important because it reaches a wide and younger audience.

Scroll through her Twitter and you see she continually speaks out about causes, from supporting the Supreme Court’s decision to not allow employers to discriminate against LGBTQ to calling for Juneteenth to be a national holiday.

She also made headlines calling for her home state of Tennessee to remove all confederate statues. ” As a Tennessean, it makes me sick that there are monuments standing in our state that celebrate racist historical figures who did evil things. Edward Carmack and Nathan Bedford Forrest were DESPICABLE figures in our state history and should be treated as such,” she said at the time.

Eilish has been right there with her, reaching out to her Instagram following of more than 64 million followers to speak out constantly about both Coronavirus, encouraging people to wear masks, and Black Lives Matter.

Her last seven posts have been about Black Lives Matter and in the most powerful, she called out white privilege in a post that now has 6.5 million likes. And she constantly posts about Black Lives Matter and where to donate in her Instagram stories.

Between them the superstars are reaching over 152 million fans. That is exactly what Nash told me needed to happen in 2017 to continue to build momentum for music and activism.

Of course when Bruce Springsteen speaks out on his Sirius XM DJ stints, telling the president, “To wear a f**king mask,” it carries a great deal of weight and gravitas. And Springsteen’s powerful requiem for the more than 100,000 Americans who have lost their lives during the Coronavirus pandemic speaks to millions.

But it shouldn’t surprise anybody who has followed Springsteen’s career that he is using his voice to demand change or that he has become the best DJ in America during the pandemic because no other DJ besides Springsteen could get away with telling the president to wear a “F**king mask.” And Springsteen, who is used to speaking to tens of thousands during his legendary shows, has brilliantly put his voice to use in the radio world since he cannot reach fans via touring during this crucial election year.  

Nor should it surprise anyone, other than apparently a couple of idiots who have apparently never listened to Tom Morello’s music carefully or read a single interview with him, that the Rage Against The Machine guitarist became a trending topic on Twitter by trolling the hell out of “fans” who told him to stick to music, not politics.

“What music of mine were you a fan of that DIDN’T contain ‘political BS’? I need to know so I can delete it from the catalogue,” Morello responded to the tweet.

Those are just a few of the musicians who have made headlines. Countless more have spoken out and done so passionately and eloquently — Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike became a hero in his hometown of Atlanta for the impassioned way he urged calm following the shooting of Rayshard Brooks; Ariana Grande was one of the first to use her massive following to encourage people to stay home and wear masks during Coronavirus; Beyonce wrote a brilliant, beautiful letter to the attorney general of Kentucky demanding justice for Breonna Taylor; Pink has had as much fun as Morello responding to fans who disagree with her pointed anti-Trump stance.

In 2016 and 2017 this was what Young and Nash were calling for. And it has come to fruition maybe even more than they could have expected. And one thing that’s clear, anyone who wants musicians in 2020 to stick to music, hasn’t been paying attention. Finally there is a new generation of artists joining the battle for civil rights and equality and no one is going to shut them up.

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