In June of 2015, Roberto Lange put out a song called “Young, Latin & Proud” under his stage name Helado Negro. It was a song about his life, a personal song, he says. But its timing was impeccable: it came out right after then-candidate Donald Trump made openly anti-Latino statements on the campaign trail, and overnight, “Young, Latin & Proud” morphed into a protest anthem. “It became this thing where you could express your political affiliation through my song,” Lange says. “It’s not really a response, but I’m more than happy for people to use it as a tool.”
But now, with Trump taking office, Lange is searching for new ways, more active and open ways, to make the world a better place. So is the entire industry he’s part of: Since the election, musicians, promoters, writers, labels, and nearly every other kind of music professionals has mobilized, putting on benefit concerts for organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU — like the one Lange performed in this week — and building out new organizational groups to use music to change the world.
“Music has always been a voice for the politically active. Maybe here of late it hasn’t been that obvious,” says Sara Casella, a publicist at MotorMouthMedia. “ But we can organize now. We can use power and popularity for good.” As a publicist, it’s Casella’s job to connect people, so immediately following the election, she and a colleague set up a meeting of music industry people—musicians, publicists, and organizers—just to talk about how they could mobilize for social good. She expected fifteen or twenty people. 150 showed up. The group was so large she had to split them into sub-groups by topic of interest. “We’re trying to find a middle ground,” she says. “And by talking to each other, I think we can do the most good possible.”
Jon Coombs, the managing director at Secretly Canadian Publishing, was at the meeting. “I was really inspired by how quickly it seemed like the industry mobilized,” he says. Secretly Group, which includes Coombs’s company, Jagjaguwar, and several other prominent indie labels, has already planned their first response: in conjunction with Dave Eggers, they’re organizing Our First 100 Days. The project is similar to Eggers’ previous project 30 Days, 30 Songs which released an anti-Trump protest song every day the month before the election. Coombs is quick to clarify that this project, the first installment of which is by Angel Olsen and arrives today at noon, will just be great songs, with all the proceeds going to six hand-picked charities.
Benefits like these are on everyone’s mind. A recent pair of charity shows in Brooklyn supporting the ACLU and Planned Parenthood sold out weeks in advance, thanks to headliners like Sharon Van Etten, Beiruit, and Helado Negro. “Any of the musicians could sell out that arena on their own, but they’re choosing to play together for good,” says Lange. “People forget how powerful that can be to align yourself with someone else, how much change you can make.”
Right now, artists want to work together, and organizers are finding bands more willing than ever to play benefit shows. “Organizing any concert can be difficult because bands have specific people they want to play with and stuff,” Juan TwinMg, the director of Greenpoint’s Music Off McGolrick told me. “But with benefit shows, it’s almost easier. People are really motivated right now.” So motivated, he says, that the two or three shows a month he plans at the Park Church Co-op are giving money to charity— in addition to an already-planned monthly benefit show. “I guess I didn’t realize the extent to which people want to make a difference,” TwinMg adds. He doesn’t just mean the artists who are choosing to play these shows—it’s the people attending them, too.
Most of those mobilizing in the industry are new to activism. Jessica George isn’t, so she’s glad to see the newcomers. She’s the executive director of Revolutions Per Minute, a nonprofit that has organized artists for activism through several election cycles. The fight for activism in music, she says, ebbs and flows, but the rush right now is inspiring. “It’s a significant moment. I feel like we are in the stage right now where it’s a sustained, resolute determination and shift, where we recognize over the next four years that we really need to be showing up.”
Because artists connect so deeply with their fanbases, it’s pretty easy for them to use their platform in a minor way, like adding a dollar charge to tickets, or simply talking about what they’re passionate about from the stage. “The power of organizing musicians is that fans are already emotionally connected to artists, you’re easier to connect,” George adds. “Once you can figure out why an artist cares about an issue, then you can relate that to fans. That makes sense to fans because they are already emotionally connecting to artists.”
And, perhaps, artists can eventually reach outside their fanbases to make an even wider impact. “I have at least one relative who voted for Trump,” says Ruth Garbus, a singer-songwriter who played the Planned Parenthood/ACLU Benefit Concert. “I think it’s important as an artist to understand where people who disagree with us really are, so we can find areas of commonality.”