With the 2016 presidential election still over a year away, it’s hard to predict who will even wind up on the ballot, let alone who will succeed Barack Obama as commander in chief of the United States. On both sides, the race leading up to the primaries has been heated, with Donald Trump’s reckless antics firing up conservatives — sometimes for the wrong reasons — and an ugly email scandal tarnishing
Hillary Clinton’s reputation when she should have been an easy choice for Democrats. Through all of this, Vermont senator (and Flatbush, Brooklyn, native) Bernie Sanders has emerged as a hopeful who has “brought fire back to the Democratic Party,” according to the September 28 issue of Time magazine, the cover of which he graces. On a platform of free college tuition and public healthcare, as well as a sworn promise to reckon with this country’s appalling economic disparities, Sanders has managed to gain momentum among voters largely due to grassroots movements. His stump speeches have seen huge turnouts, and this Sunday, there’s a campaign fundraiser in an unlikely setting: Bushwick DIY venue Shea Stadium.
Hosted by local grassroots organizers Bushwick Berners, along with music and arts collective Ipsum and cultural-happenings curators Colonel Presents, the so-called Weekend at Bernie’s will feature sets from Nonsense, Nine of Swords, Mannequin Pussy, and Guerilla Toss. Over a thousand people have RSVP’d for the event via Facebook thus far, and there’s a community outreach initiative taking place earlier in the afternoon, before the party really gets swinging. Jon Fuhrer, one of Bushwick Berners’ co-founders, sees the show as a great opportunity not just to raise funds for Sanders — he’s aiming to donate about 90 percent of proceeds from ticket and merchandise sales to the campaign — but also, and perhaps more importantly, to register voters and engage a youthful base that has a reputation for being somewhat apolitical.
“Bernie Sanders is a transformational figure who has tapped into this energy that a lot of young people feel; he’s really connected with young people,” Fuhrer says. “By doing events like this we’re able to keep that energy going and moving forward and growing our organization and our outreach efforts. A show like this keeps it fun, it keeps it cool, but we use that as a way to get more people involved. I think in terms of political apathy, it’s not gonna be like the previous election — it’ll be more like how Obama was elected in 2008, when you had a lot of young people really getting involved in politics.”
Fuhrer has been a Sanders supporter for twelve years, by his own estimate, having volunteered on Sanders’s 2006 campaign for Senate while attending college in Vermont. That’s also where he met Peter Negroponte, the drummer and ringleader of arty noise-rockers and recent DFA signees Guerilla Toss. Bassist Phillip Racz says Fuhrer has been a longtime fan of the band and is a constant fixture at Guerilla Toss’s wild gigs. “He was so excited when the band moved to Brooklyn, and he’s just been hanging out at so many of our shows — he gets people dancing,” Racz says. With that kind of energy, it’s no wonder Fuhrer has decided to spearhead Sanders actions throughout the community. “He’s been hip to Bernie for a long time,” Racz adds, “and he was just so passionate and sincere about it. The thing that really got me [was that] this isn’t just about fundraising — one of the big things he’s trying to do is register people to vote. And we feel really lucky to be a part of it.”
Though it’s sill early in the election cycle, registration matters, particularly in New York State, where voters must register with a particular political affiliation ahead of the primaries in order to nominate a candidate for that party. Despite her recent gaffes, Clinton is still the biggest name in the Democratic game, but Fuhrer warns that Hillary’s dependence on corporate financial backing and her flip-flopping on progressive issues makes Sanders the stronger candidate. “Of all the Democratic candidates, [Sanders] has the strongest track record in terms of supporting working families, supporting labor issues, and supporting social-justice issues,” he says — all things that loom large in communities like Bushwick’s, made up in large part of small-business owners, artists, and Hispanic families. “He has the integrity and backbone to effectively deal with that, because he doesn’t take money from corporate America or Wall Street, as opposed to the other candidates in this race.”
Fuhrer says the tides are shifting, and he’s right. According to the Time article, current polls indicate Sanders would “edge out Clinton in Iowa and beat her in New Hampshire by ten points” if the primaries were held today. “As I’ve said from the get-go, Bernie is not going to win the media war, and he’s not going to win the fundraising war. The only way that he will win is through grassroots outreach throughout the entire country, and not taking any state, not taking any neighborhood, not taking any community for granted,” Fuhrer says. “What this campaign is about is really empowering people to take on their own efforts. And that’s the main difference between a campaign like Bernie’s and a campaign like Hillary’s. [She] doesn’t have people doing their own fundraising concerts, or young people doing anything like that.”
Fuhrer has high hopes for Sunday’s benefit. “I’m really hoping that we can sell out the place and just have that type of buzzing atmosphere. A show is one thing, but a show that’s packed out and has that type of energy just inspires people,” he says. “That’s what will inspire people to be like, ‘I want to come out with you guys next Saturday to knock on doors of voters. I want to help phone-bank. I want to create my own event to attract new people and I want to spread the word about Bernie.’ ”
Though Guerilla Toss don’t see themselves as an overtly political band, they’re happy to help support that effort, and to support political activism in general. “Not everyone in the world is lucky enough to participate in their government,” Racz points out. “It is a shame when people just let that go. I think the biggest thing is just to remind people that [they can] participate in democracy and it is important.”
It’s certainly not the first time musicians have been involved in political campaigns, with most artist activism skewing liberal. No one was surprised when Bruce Springsteen parlayed years of penning protest anthems and working-class balladry into actually endorsing candidates — first with John Kerry, and then with Obama. But he’s not the only one; Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder raised nearly $2 million for Obama’s re-election campaign, and Jay Z and Beyoncé became White House regulars after raising totals doubling that. Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, and Bon Jovi performed at Obama benefits, while Mary J. Blige and the Foo Fighters paid tribute to the president at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. And the Dixie Chicks’ now-infamous statements about George W. Bush were the subject of an entire documentary.
There aren’t as many musicians espousing right-wing viewpoints or supporting Republican candidates (unless you count the empty, though highly alarming, threats made by Ted Nugent, or Dave Mustaine’s conspiracy ramblings), but they’re still there. Kid Rock played a Mitt Romney rally, L.L. Cool J made an appearance in support of John McCain at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and Johnny Ramone surprised fans in 2002 with his endorsement of George W. Bush.
While musicians don’t wield the same sort of power that Washington’s policymakers do, their social cachet can be instrumental — pardon the pun — in effecting political change. Bill Clinton discovered the powerful intersection of music and politics way back in 1992. Running against incumbent president George H.W. Bush, Clinton appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show to toot out a mean sax solo, upping his cool factor and cementing his popularity with young and minority voters. “Somewhere there’s a strategist who’s like, ‘We’ll get a five-point bump if Bill will just play some sax,’ ” Racz laughs. “We’ll know Bernie’s a real threat when we see Bill Clinton holding a saxophone.”
Weekend at Bernie’s, a Bernie Sanders Benefit, goes down at Shea Stadium on September 27. For ticket information, click here.