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.”