Music for America (MfA), a nonprofit group working to get out the youth vote in the hope of unseating George W. Bush, has a new answer to the old dance-club question “Who rocks the party that rocks the party?”: They do. In advance of Super Tuesday, MfA organized concerts across the country to pull young people together and spark their interest in politics. “There’s this quote from Bush’s State of the Union Address: ‘We must work together to counter the negative influence of the culture'” explains 26-year-old Franz Hartl, one of MfA’s co-founders. “But if you look at the last fifty years, musicians have often made as much difference as politicians. Look at Bono, Dylan, Bob Marley. It’s a shame that people in politics aren’t paying attention to this.”
Thanks to MfA, this just might change. Unlike the more mainstream Rock the Vote campaign, which has tended to emphasize participation in the electoral process as opposed to raising awareness on specific issues, MfA isn’t afraid to court a little controversy. Indeed, they hope to stir things up by shining a spotlight on issues of specific interest to younger people: the gutting of Pell Grants, increasing media consolidation and the War on Drugs are just a few examples. “Issues that voters face now are important to the lives of young people,” says 25-year-old MfA volunteer Sally Robinson. “We’re going to have to foot the bill for this Administration, and the sooner we get Bush out of office, the less he’ll be able to hurt our lives.”
This past weekend, MfA drew more than 20,000 people to sold-out concerts that spanned the musical spectrum–rock, hip-hop, acid jazz. And if Friday night’s show featuring the Philadelphia-based hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks and ex-Wu-Tang Clan rapper GZA at Northsix in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is at all representative, anyone who attended an MfA event was hard-pressed to miss the energized shouts of “register to vote!” upon arrival or to ignore the kids milling around urging others to fill out a voter-registration card or sign up for the MfA mailing list.
The group’s stated mission is to inspire 1 million young people to participate in the 2004 presidential election, and its strategy is right on: Throw a good party, and potential voters will come. In the 2000 election, of 56 million eligible voters under 35, less than 25 million cast ballots; clearly, there’s room for improvement. Yet, Hartl says, “The MfA message is that voting is the least people can do. We want to get a million people fired up–get them involved and not be afraid to discuss politics with their friends.”
MfA uses optimism and entertainment to energize the youth vote to counter the feeling of frustration, despair and hopelessness that affected so many young activists after massive peace marches last year failed to halt the invasion of Iraq. “We had these protests that drew millions of people, and we got no coverage,” says Hartl. “We were dismissed as a focus group. A few of us sat around over Chinese food and a few beers and decided that we had to figure out what comes after protest, because it obviously is not effective.”
Initially rallying around Howard Dean’s candidacy, Hartl and a few friends–music lovers all–eventually struck on the idea of staging concerts to attract young people to the political process. MfA created a PAC to help in funding the groups’ activities and threw a few small shows around New York City, attracting artists and fans through Meetup.com and word of mouth. It was small-scale, but it worked.
Last fall, however, MfA attracted the attention of some California-based investors after Liza Featherstone reported on the project in The Nation [see “Antiwar Students Rock the Vote,” August 4, 2003]. These investors–who wish to remain anonymous for now–asked Hartl and his colleagues to come up with a business plan, and met with the team to discuss the project. All went smoothly; MfA was suddenly infused with enough money for the organization to expand to a staff of eight, maintain offices on both coasts, develop a sophisticated, interactive website (www.musicforamerica.org) and devote its time to organizing rather than fundraising.
Since MfA is specifically trying to reach those young people who aren’t predisposed to participate in politics–to ease them into the idea that what happens in Washington actually does affect the under-30 crowd–its primary focus is on music and community more than a specific message. “We don’t condone speechmaking,” says Hartl. “We want to connect the dots for people.” In addition to its website–a visually exciting space in which artists and individuals can get information, speak out, start a blog or organize a show–the group has taken a cue from the indie and DJ scenes and designed a snazzy set of “issue cards” to educate crowds.
The cards look like party promotions–with edgy graphics, color and a glossy finish–but function as shrewd recruitment tools. Each card highlights a topic of import to young people–the RAVE Act, unemployment, healthcare, media consolidation–and, using statistics and hard facts, sketches out why they should care. At shows, volunteers thrust cards into the hands of concertgoers as they come through the door or mill around near the bar. At concert’s end, each showgoer is handed an envelope containing a complete set of issue cards as well as a stack of voter registration forms and other goodies. Hartl explains that MfA hopes to register voters on the model of the popular website Friendster.com, where each member has a homepage that is linked to the homepages of his or her friends. Those friends are linked to a bunch of other friends, and so on, so that a member, in the end, might have a “friend” network including thousands of people. MfA hopes to inspire young people attending their events to get ten friends to register to vote, that those ten friends will inspire ten more, etc. If it works, the group will certainly meet its goal.
MfA has put on 261 shows across the country, and there are lots more in the works. The group has teamed up with Plea for Peace for a series of shows later this spring. On the local level, the group will increase its support and outreach to grassroots organizers who want to put together their own MfA event. (DIY kits that lay out how to put on a show in your hometown are available on the MfA website.) The group’s anti-hierarchical approach to organizing is integral to its mission. “National groups are often not trusted by grassroots groups,” Hartl observes. “We’re not in that situation. Organizers get to keep it local, and keep the money.”
Although MfA is debating whether to hold a counterconvention at the Republican National Convention in New York–“The RNC will just make heroes out of the cops,” remarks Hartl–it will have a strong presence at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in the form of…what else? A party. “We want to make sure that violence in direct action isn’t the only means for political expression for progressives,” says Hartl. More parties, more fun, more concerts. What else is there to say? Rock on.