INNOVATE / ACTIVATE

I/A 2.0 Session Summary - Beyond the Charity Concert: Artists as Activists

Jess Hemerly (Google), Larisa Mann (DJ Ripley), Erin McKeown (Musician/Berkman Center), Deyden Tethong (Air Traffic Control)

Music creates a social experience where people can engage with each other; it crosses cultural boundaries. Music is an invitation to engagement and is often used as a safe space. This session discussed the experiences and concerns with utilizing artists as activists.
Deyden Tethong and Erin McKeown discussed the significance of artist activist retreats, such as those hosted by Air Traffic Control. These spaces provide artists with the opportunity to find the space/peers to discuss obstacles to activism; experiment with the activism process; find activist-mentors, and provide artists with the time and space “to stop the hustle of running my career” to engage in activist activities. Additionally, Tethong discussed New Orleans as a “place that is what it is now because of artists taking the time to care about what’s going on and taking it to their fans.” However, she also discussed how the “time, money and resources used to promote benefit concerts may not be the best use of artist time or creativity.”

Session leaders also shared their experiences with using music and activism and the difficulty in balancing “making great music that’s also ‘activist.’” In particular, Larisa Mann (DJ Ripley) shared an anecdotal story that raised the issue of the difficulty in bringing together a wide range of audiences to support the cause. Among the factors that she considers in participating in music activism are: the music she plays, marketing, how much to charge, and the audience.

Other issues raised during this session include how to keep the movement going after the music has stopped; how to find the “right” artist to raise the profile and promote the cause, while providing a connection between the cause, the message, and the right audience; moving artist engagement beyond the retweet, to benefit shows and rallys, for example; and the consequences to being an activist with respect to success.

Important takeaways from this session include: the importance of artists knowing and using their fans and network to discuss the activist agenda; the nuances between the DJ and the artist in this conversation (fostering movements that exist; feeling out and processing the environment; and giving the voice to the movement / being spokesperson for the cause); the responsibility of organizers and activists to report back to the artists who support their causes on the progress of the initiative; and defining the success of an artist’s activist movement (do you give up the opportunity to play in front of 20 fans dedicated to the cause? Or do you play to the 20K who may not care?)