Athens musicians help shape political landscape amid controversial election

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Erin M

Rapper YG will perform at the Georgia Theatre Oct. 8 as part of “The F*** Donald Trump Tour.”

During his set, YG performs his anti-Trump song, titled “FDT,” and invites fans on stage to beat up a piñata that resembles the Republican presidential nominee. Due to its politically-geared message, the tour has been bringing the hip-hop artist’s frustrations surrounding the 2016 presidential election into music venues across North America.

“[Trump is] disrespectful. We think he’s disrespectful to our race, and to Hispanics and other minorities,” YG said. “It’s a campaign season and[the candidates are] campaigning.  I knew I was going on tour around that time, so I decided “I’m gonna call my tour ‘The F*** Donald Trump Tour.’”

As a result, this Saturday the Athens concertgoers will not just be experiencing a performance from one of the West Coast’s most prominent rap artists, they will also receive YG’s thoughts on some of 2016’s most poignant political and social issues. However, this intersection of political advocacy and music is familiar to Athens audiences, because the city’s musicians have played a part in both national and local activism both in this year’s election and throughout the past half century.

Tweets and protest anthems

On Sept. 9, 2015, just three months after Donald Trump announced his campaign for president of the United States, R.E.M. became another musical act to express its thoughts on the 2016 presidential election.

Frontman Michael Stipe took to Twitter to express his thoughts on the Trump’s unauthorized use of the group’s song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” at one of his campaign rallies.

“Go f*** yourselves, the lot of you—you sad, attention grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice,” Stipe tweeted via band mate Mike Mills’ account.

For decades, musicians have spoken out against politicians playing their music without permission, but the singer’s blunt language gained a great deal of media attention as the issue has pressed on throughout the election.

David Barbe, the director of the Music Business Certificate Program at University of Georgia, called the unauthorized use of a band’s song a “low blow,” and said it is often in a band’s best interest to capitalize on the free publicity as a means to express its own beliefs.

“I think that artists have reacted, sometimes in the best way they can, by going public with their vocal opposition to it,” Barbe said. “You use somebody’s music because you want your voters to identify with that, but if the reason they identify [with it] is because they love that artist and the artist comes out and says, ‘This is terrible, and I am adamantly against it,’ not only does it not work in that politician’s favor, but it can hurt more than it helps.”

Stipe did ultimately capitalize on the attention, going on to call Trump’s run for political office a “moronic charade of a campaign.”

Barbe, who has produced albums for a number of Athens-based artists, had his own encounter with a local group’s expression of its political beliefs when he worked with Drive-By Truckers on the band’s most recent record, 2016’s “American Band.”

The album, which was released Sept. 30, touches on the band’s thoughts on relevant topics such as immigration, gun violence and racism.

“American Band” also includes the track “What It Means,” which frontman Patterson Hood said in an interview with Rolling Stone was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“There are things that [the band sees] in the country and in the world right around us that either aren’t as they should be, or just aren’t being talked about,” Barbe said. “They just decided to lay their feelings bare and challenge themselves and their listeners and make a statement.”

‘After It’s Gone’

While the socially-conscious actions of local musicians have gained a great deal of media attention in the past few years, it’s often hard to calculate the exact effects these efforts actually have. In many situations, there isn’t a set measurement by which to determine whether or not a song, album or artist is producing any tangible form of political activism.

“Now, I think it’s easier to make a statement, but harder to make an impact,” said Montgomery Wolf, a UGA history professor who teaches a class on American popular music. “Because it’s just less shocking now than it used to be.”

To Wolf, the majority of popular music is reactionary, but the music that has the largest influence is “the stuff that really causes change, and anticipates change.”

For rapper Tony B, it isn’t only about anticipation — it’s also about authenticity. The hip-hop artist, who grew up, attended high school and began his music career in Athens, said it’s hard for an artist to convincingly speak on an issue he or she hasn’t experienced.

“I base my music off of what I’m going through — situations I’ve seen or what my close friends are going through,” Tony B said. “Nine times out of 10 if I haven’t lived through it I won’t touch it.”

Additionally, Barbe noted the importance of the music’s quality — listenability matters, because it’s crucial in attracting an audience.

“For music to serve as an instrument of social change, it has to be great music,” Barbe said. “People loved Bob Dylan’s music in the ‘60s because songs like ‘Positively 4th Street’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ are great songs.”

These factors all combined together in 2012, when Patterson Hood recruited Barbe, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and a number of other local musicians to record the song “After It’s Gone,” which vocally protested the construction of a Walmart within walking distance of downtown Athens. The track was anticipatory, predicting the issues of corporate infiltration that would continue to play out downtown in the following years. It was personal, relating to a subject important for all of the musicians involved, and it was catchy enough to attract listeners to its message.

Ultimately, the Walmart was never constructed, which Barbe said was “absolutely related” to Hood’s song.

‘The politics of dancing’

UGA students Butch Blasingame and Michael Simpson met in a drama class in 1971. Along with their classmate Bill Wilson, a drummer, and two of Blassingame’s musician friends, the students began practicing original and cover songs in a house on Prince Avenue, performing under the name Ravenstone.

From its earliest rehearsals, the band’s message was inherently political — Simpson was a political columnist at The Red & Black and would use his thoughts about current affairs as inspiration when writing lyrics — but the group’s interaction with social issues began to increase when a series of concerts brought the members into contact with some of the period’s most politicized topics.

In March of 1972, Ravenstone performed at an on-campus dance in support of equal rights for gay and lesbian students. The concert, which was almost canceled by university officials, raised local concerns due to its potential promotion of sodomy, which was at that time a crime in the state of Georgia. Simpson said the backlash surrounding the event opened the band’s eyes to the social issues plaguing Athens and UGA during the early ‘70s.

“The thing that struck me is that dancing is truly a fundamental right,” he said, “For somebody just to arbitrarily announce, ‘Oh, well you can’t have a dance because it’s for gays and it promotes sodomy, I think that’s probably when it really came home for us.”

The band had even formed its own political party, aptly named the “Ravenstone Party,” the previous year.

Between the group’s student government coalition — which, according to a 1971 article in The Red & Black, was meant to “provide a party for the counterculture” — and the members’ active role in political protests, Ravenstone had become an influential force in Athens.

“We kind of called it ‘the politics of dancing,’ and it really was,” Simpson said. “Our music was about a good beat and having a good time, but we certainly wanted to put a message into it.”

Following in Ravenstone’s footsteps, some of Athens’ most successful bands of all time began to speak publicly on political and social issues in the following decades.

In 1987, the B-52s produced a celebrity-featuring public service announcement for amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.

Four years later, when R.E.M. released its Grammy-winning album “Out Of Time,” the group took a stand on the Motor Voter Bill, which would give U.S. citizens the option to register to vote while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses. The CD box for the record included a mail-in petition, allowing the band’s fans to show their support for the bill.

The petition received 10,000 signatures in three weeks, and the bill was passed into law in 1993.

‘Just another voice’

While some of Athens’ most famous bands have been able to successfully influence both national and local politics through their music and words, it’s not always so easy for everyone else. For artists such as Tony B, who have not yet reached the level of fame experienced by bands such as R.E.M. and Drive-By Truckers, it’s not always worth it to speak out when you know you won’t be the loudest voice.

“I’m just afraid I’ll be just another voice that they’ll listen to,” Tony B said. “If I speak on something for like a month or two, then [after that] it’ll just be back to the norm.”

Barbe agrees there has to be a sizable audience for a song to be able to enact real change.

“Somebody’s gotta listen to it,” he said. “I could write the greatest protest song in the world and sit in my office with the doors closed, but that’s not gonna do anything.”

Instead of embracing the nationally-focused messages of more prominent rappers such as YG, Tony B sticks to what he knows he can do — the rapper talks about his constant effort to connect with and set an example for the kids in the community where he grew up.

Meanwhile, Barbe said, artists with larger followings often bear the responsibility of tackling on larger and perhaps more sensitive topics as well as the danger that comes with taking a stance.

“An artist has to take certain risks, and one of those risks has to be if you feel something is important enough to say you can’t be really concerned about who it’s gonna alienate.”

YG, who said he constantly reminds his fans to get out and vote on Election Day and that his concerts often offer voter registration for attendees, feels a similar sense of responsibility.

“As a rap artist part of the rap community — that’s our obligation,” YG said. “I feel like everybody [in the rap community] has a part in this. They’re supposed to feel like they gotta press the line and speak up for their community.”

Originally published in The Red & Black

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