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Music-makers as Community Change-makers: Let’s Hear ‘Em Out

Shut downs, (democratic) socialists, and supreme court battles, oh my.

It’s April 2019, and we’re still here, somehow, some way, with our new(ish) Congress ushering in all sorts of new stories, drama and eventually — fingers crossed! — new laws to debate, celebrate or mourn. You don’t have to be fan club president for a famously ripped-and-dissenting octogenarian, nor a click-baiter’s MAGA dream, to be an informed and politically engaged American these days. The info (and infotainment) is all around us, downright inescapable unless you unplug all media but your FM radio with the dial set to 101.5. (We WXNA volunteer DJs approve of that path, for the record.) But even then, Twitter app deleted, cable news shunned, you might tune to a show on the X — yours truly with “What Moves You” Wednesday mornings, perhaps, or Laurel’s “All About Nashville” midday Friday — and stumble upon an interview with someone who makes music, and also chooses to make statements about that which influences life and music. For many, arts and activism (<< the name of a former WXNA interview show, incidentally, big ups to Ariel!) are not mutually exclusive pursuits, and I, for one, am grateful for the blending.

Obviously, art has forever accompanied and in many cases helped to power political and cultural movements. (I love this collection of important works in the Civil Rights era from nonprofit Teach Rock.) But midterm elections aren’t sexy — it’s far too easy to generate a weary “meh” about down-ballot races, disconnecting oneself from policies that actually impact the day-to-day (hello, Nashville transit referendum). It’s in fervor for or against executive candidates that we usually see the artists and other pop culture influencers out flexing their sway over us commoners (see: Rock Against Bush, this Millennial’s first memory of real-time music made and marketed in protest, plus countless others).

But the year 2018 was a surprisingly major one for political activism, locally, nationally, globally, and musicians were both participants and soundtrack providers in the democracy we made. Speaking as a community-loving freeform DJ, but also a superfan of civic engagement and voting rights, I’ve never seen such galvanized support from the music community to make changes in our country, and at the neighborhood level, too.

Early last year, I interviewed local soul-rock bombshell Alanna Quinn-Broadus of Alanna Royale the week of the second Women’s March. Additional “What Moves You” interviewees, Nashville-based artists Will Hoge and Ron Pope, respectively hosted spring and summer “& Friends” benefits for nonpartisan nonprofit HeadCount, for which I moonlight as a Team Leader registering voters at concerts. Come September, my show guest Kyshona Armstrong was pairing up with Nicki Bluhm to celebrate “rowdy women” at the book release of local author Sarah Hays Coomer. In that same month, an embarrassment of riches put me in a room chatting with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, a duo historically vocal about and involved in many human rights and environmental causes, before both Amy and Emily Saliers played a National Voter Registration Day concert at City Winery alongside an impressive slate of singer songwriters. Sheryl Crow, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell, Billy Ray Cyrus and Brit songstress Lucie Silvas, among others, played a free, Saturday morning “Party to the Polls” event that culminated in a march from Ascend Amphitheater to Howard Office Building to early vote.

With even more national relevance and resonance, Jason Isbell’s August performance at Marathon Music Works in support of 2018 Senate candidate and former TN Governor Phil Bredesen drew the ire of GOP leaders and voters who just want their Americana uncluttered with/unfettered by their politics, thankyouverymuch . Down in Texas, Willie rallied for then-Senate and now-Presidential hopeful Beto and hordes of fans were shocked and appalled by Nelson’s affiliation with the progressive young candidate, despite decades of overt activism for left-leaning priorities. And then, who could forget previously mum (or at least middle-of-the-road) Tay-Tay’s extraordinary impact on last-minute registrations in the Volunteer State by Istagramming her support for Dems in early October? WHOA.

I’ve volunteered for more than a decade with HeadCount, founded on the very premise that live music fans can and should all be participants in their democracy, so let’s meet them where they are (music venues) and make that first step (registering to vote) convenient and fun. It never ceases to amaze or delight me the difference made in our engagement with fans when the (wo)man with the mic casually nudges the captive audience to “check out the HeadCount table in the lobby” or “register to vote if you haven’t already, it’s too important.” Roots-rock darling Michael Franti made such a call to action from stage in the summer of 2008, remembers my husband and co-Team Leader, spurring an immediate and steady stream of potential voters to turn their heads to the top of the amphitheater lawn, and make their ways to complete an official voter registration form in an exciting if not eerie Walking Dead effect.

Save the “sheeple” jabs: if artists recognize their influence and choose to use it beyond music, we should appreciate and celebrate this conscious choice to not just “shut up and sing,” as the anti-war Dixie Chicks were advised nearly 16 years ago . Maybe music is your escape from the madness, and I can certainly appreciate its life-giving powers as divorced from any other belief system, including our hyper-divisive American politics. But I’ll continue to dig into what moves artists to create their work, and to — as our fellow (concerned) citizens, real people seizing their status for good — advocate while amplified.

DJ Celia
What Moves You
Wednesdays, 9 a.m.-10 a.m.

Photo credit: Romel Sanchez, Flickr