When the votes were tallied in Georgia last November, then counted again and again, Donald Trump was characteristically vocal in his outrage that Georgia, a longtime Republican state, had turned blue. In addition to helping to hold Trump to a one-term presidency, Georgia voters also secured two Democratic Senate seats for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in a hotly contested runoff race in January.
The political change that stunned Trump and his supporters has been brewing in the Peach State for some time. Many were quick to credit Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House Minority Leader, who redirected her efforts after losing a tight 2018 gubernatorial race by founding Fair Fight Action. FFA is an organization committed to ensuring that voters who have been historically denied access to vote are able to exercise their rights. Similar groups, including New Georgia Project and When We All Vote, were critical in swaying the 2020 election. In addition to sharing a common goal, these collectives tapped into and mobilized what many Georgians know to be the state’s greatest resource: culture. Concerts, fund-raisers, special music releases and other efforts helped bring in millions of dollars for the cause.
“Our friends in the entertainment industry were instrumental in helping turn out voters across the country in the presidential election and in achieving historic turnout in Georgia’s Senate runoffs,” Stacey Abrams tells Variety. “These achievements were made possible in part by the efforts of allies in the music industry, which is essential in reaching unlikely or uninspired voters. John Legend, Ludacris, and dozens of additional artists offered their talents for Fair Fight’s ‘Rock the Runoff’ concert, which raised $1.3 million from 21,000 contributions for get-out-the-vote efforts.”
“The culture is at the heart of our community,” says Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project and its affiliate, New Georgia Project Action Fund. “We leaned into the heart of our community to empower musicians to engage young people in the election. Young voters are too often left out of the conversation and outreach efforts and we need to change that in Georgia and across the country. Young voters are the future, and it is best to engage them early — that’s what we are doing at NGP.”
Youth voter turnout in Georgia was among the highest in the nation — at 51% according to data provided by Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. That number marks a striking 14-point increase from the 2016 election.
The marked increase isn’t by happenstance. One of Ufot’s mantras is “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” and organizations including NGP leaned on cultural workers — including many musicians — to popularize participation in elections by crafting better stories about the power of the vote and the rise of the “New South.”
“Rock the Runoff” was just one of the many events produced ahead of Election Day. When We All Vote was a major sponsor for the 2020 Roots Picnic, and One MusicFest hosted a “Pre-Party to the Polls” in November that included performances from T.I., Ari Lennox and Rick Ross.
Also, Ufot adds, “In November, we hosted ‘Twitch the Vote’ in partnership with All Voting Is Local to amplify the importance of voting for young people. We had musical guests like Curren$y, Dave East and DJ Mannie Fresh. Ahead of the Senate run-off, we created Celebrate Georgia!, a drive-in concert experience with Monica, Rick Ross, DJ Drama and more.
“We do not just want young people voting because they are told to,” she emphasizes. “We want them hyped about getting their voices heard and seeing themselves reflected in government representation. Musical artists have large influence over these young voters and we are excited to engage them in our efforts.”
In celebration of Earth Day last month, hip-hop duo Earthgang announced plans for a community garden in Southwest Atlanta (https://gofund.me/55c84660). The pair had performed at the Roots Picnic and are also among artists from the Since The 80’s/ Dreamville roster who participated in discussions with young and first-time voters about the power of their vote and activism leading up to the election.
“The music industry galvanized a group of people who usually feel disenfranchised and discouraged to participate in politics” Earthgang member Olu tells Variety. “The industry plays a big role in protecting the voters and making sure their demands and needs are met by the ones they voted in office. We are the voice of the voiceless.”
However, excitement over the Biden, Warnock and Ossoff wins has been short-lived. Republican lawmakers responded by introducing some 81 voting bills, many strategically aimed at the methods most likely behind the increase in voter turnout. Senate Bill 202 was signed into law by Gov. Kemp in March. The 100-page omnibus bill has been compared to statutes from the Jim Crow era. The politicians behind the new policies claim they’re designed to make elections more secure, but others argue they are outright voter suppression intended to make it harder for Blacks to vote. The law, scheduled to go into effect this year, will limit the number of ballot-drop boxes and access to dropboxes; restrict anyone from providing refreshments to voters waiting in line; restrict mobile voting buses and severely limit the power of the secretary of state by allowing a board to temporarily take over local election offices in cases like November’s tight race.
But there’s a chance the law may never go into effect. New Georgia Project, along with Black Voters Matter Fund and Rise, quickly filed a federal lawsuit challenging provisions of the law.
“We filed a lawsuit against the state government literally minutes after it was signed into law because it is a blatant violation of voting rights, and we were ready for it,” Ufot says. “The case against SB 202 is clear: it violates the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. I am confident they will not win.
“Across our state and our country, voters are slowly starting to realize that supporting the party backing a violent mob wishing to erect a confederate flag in the Capital might not be the best move,” she continues. “Republicans know this and are moving scared. We have a robust, growing and powerful culture of civic engagement in the state.”
In addition to the lawsuit against SB202, there are also multiple pieces of federal legislation that can help offset the new voter laws that have been passed – not just in Georgia, but also in Florida, Texas and Ohio. HR-1, the For the People Act and HR-4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. According to Ufot, these pieces of legislation would create federally mandated voting rights protections, to ensure that state leaders do not have the power to create their own rules when it comes to voting rights.
While it remains to be seen whether Georgia will continue down a progressive path, local music executives are committed to keeping engaged in the civic process.
“The pandemic forced a lot of people to sit down and take a look at how the leaders of our country could affect us for the better or for worse,” Ray Daniels, CEO of Raydar Management and a veteran record company executive, tells Variety. “It’s easy to sit back and believe that what happens in Washington doesn’t affect the industry directly. But those 16-year-old kids who help your records break charts won’t be able to if they can’t walk up the street safely; your neighborhood elders won’t be okay if they can’t vote because it takes 10 hours to wait in line; and that mother of four without access to a livable wage and affordable health insurance won’t be okay if the industry doesn’t support leaders who will fix those issues.”
All parties agree that if the progress made in the last election will be lost if the people who made it happen, particularly the music industry, don’t remain engaged.
“The music industry’s continued dedication in our democratic process is vital,” Stacey Abrams tells Variety. “Especially to protect the rights of communities of color that are under assault by voter suppression bills across the country. I know the industry will continue to play a vital role, and I urge artists to engage their communities in efforts to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”