So You Want to Mobilize? 5 Considerations for Activist Artists
What a time to be alive.
There’s a place for activist artists, and with the rise of social movements and awareness campaigns like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and the more recent cry from artists and “woke” folks regarding the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, there couldn’t be a better time to align yourself with like-minded audiences, events, and organizations. Best believe that using your platform to amplify social awareness can encourage others to act on issues.
Keep in mind, protest music and art can be a delicate thing because these works have the potential to be viewed as preachy, short-sighted, and opportunistic. Another assumption is that these works of art will become outdated. But think about it - songs that addressed social and political ills in the past can still serve as representations for all of the madness today. Case in point, the lyrics in “War” by Bob Marley & The Wailers (originally delivered by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I at the United Nations in 1963):
Until the philosophy
Which hold(s) one race superior and another
Everywhere (there) is war
“War” is just one example of a protest song that still holds true for some of today’s movements. So whether you take on an issue with one song, or social consciousness is a big part of your identity, I offer five points to consider so your activist art can have a real and lasting impact.
1 // Be genuine.
When you speak out about an issue, make sure it’s something you’re truly passionate about. Jumping on the bandwagon might be one thing when following a clothing or food trend, but it’s pretty douchey to do the same when lives are being affected by oppressive systems.
Like music, social movements cultivate a sense of community. Your work can play a big part in strengthening this community when you stand in solidarity with others. To jump on a social movement because it seems trendy is not only disingenuous, but your newfound audience will eventually feel abandoned when you move on to the next hot topic.
2 // Do your homework.
The last thing you want to do is voice your position about an issue and not extend your knowledge beyond the exclamation. When you use your platform to highlight a social ill or point the finger at the culprit, you should be able to back your views. Actor and author Franchesca Ramsey said it best when she said, “activism is like long division – you have to show your work.”
There will always be experiences you can't understand and things you don’t know about. Social and political issues are usually deeply rooted, and unless you give professor-status dedication to one topic, they’re difficult to navigate. Still, do your best - research the issue, its causes, key players, and the policies and freedoms at stake. Draw from personal experiences if applicable, and if nothing else, be ready to answer this question: How did you arrive at your perspective?
3 // Be prepared for some backlash.
Publicly voicing your opinion, especially about social issues, won’t come without opposition. The test of a truly conscious artist is the willingness to walk the walk, and not allow the potential of backlash to deter you from speaking out.
Prepare yourself by learning more about the arguments of the opposing side. A conscious artist should also be an open-minded person, and even though you may not agree with the opposition, lead with love but stand strong. A talented person with a heart and a platform is a powerful thing.
Voicing your opinion about a social issue also runs the risk of losing an audience. In this age of digital friendships and fandom, where “likes” and views seem to be valued more than genuine engagement, some artists and aspiring influencers will stay mum about controversial topics and stick to the fun and pretty side of life. Let them do their thing while you do yours. Just trust in this: Once you embrace who you’ve become as an artist and a brand, you’ll continuously attract an audience that shares the same beliefs.
Lastly, if it gets to be a little too much for you to handle, hire a PR rep. If you don’t have the budget to hire a rep, look to free online resources for communication strategies.
4 // Get involved. Like, for real.
Using your platform to raise awareness about issues is a brave act and a contribution in and of itself. Still, change requires consistency and continuity. Aligning with an organization, a brand, or an event that addresses the very issue you’re passionate about not only amplifies the cause, it also fosters relationships with audiences that share your passion for change.
5 // In a band? Make sure you’re on the same page.
When you build a brand around a movement that can potentially cause controversy, it’s better when the entire crew is on board. Each member is just that - a representative of the group. For instance, if your song calls out the tendency of Trumpito’s rhetoric to amplify the ideologies of racists, and then one of your members is seen rocking a MAGA hat, it not only causes head scratches, but it will put your credibility into question.
Here’s another example: In late 2017, I worked with a stellar EDM band who wanted to be “packaged” as anti-drug activists, in it for the pure love of music and dance. Sounds like an oxymoron, but there’s a place for every act. I relished in the challenge.
I collaborated with the two band leaders that hired me, and when I presented the band with a strategy that included their drug-free movement, another band member stepped up and wanted to eliminate that narrative from their persona (communication is key, y’all!). Long story short, the guys had to regroup and I’ll leave it at that.
Activist artistry comes with responsibility, and it’s up to you to determine how far you’re willing to go to catalyze positive social change. When in doubt, look within, look to other artists for inspiration, and understand that real change happens when you realize that this is bigger than you.
Are there points you’d like to add to this article? Anything you agree or disagree with? Por qué? Please leave a comment below!