Moments after Donald Trump was elected president last year, the Internet lit up with people prophesizing that the music community would rally against him, hoping that it would spur politically-minded musicians to create the best music of their careers. We assumed that we would get albums pushing back against the Trump regime, like what we saw in the early 2000s with the “Rock Against Bush” campaigns. Instead, we got musicians going the truly political route and actually running for office.
There's already an existing history of rock musicians going full-on political, with mixed results—like Jello Biafra’s failed attempt at becoming the mayor of San Francisco (and his even less successful presidential campaign), or Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic’s various flirtations with political office in Washington State. However, within the last few years, we've been seeing people in the punk, metal, and hardcore scenes throw their hats in the political ring—and win. Most recently, we saw Justin Brannan, known for his involvement in hardcore bands Indecision and Most Precious Blood, elected to City Council in Brooklyn; and Danica Roem, vocalist for metal band Cab Ride Home from Northern Virginia, unseating a 25-year incumbent from the Virginia House of Delegates.
While scouring through the stories of people like Roem, Brannan, and others, the natural tendency is to look for something from their musical history that made them stand out. Did they use their influence from their music to drive fans to vote? Did they have some kind of fundraising event with high-profile friends? Did their history as a musician give them some special skills that others outside of music lacked?
And the answer is, no, not really. While some people might be searching for a narrative that their status as musicians propelled them to their election wins, that’s not really the case. As Brannan says, the citizens of Bay Ridge didn’t vote for him because he was in Indecision. They voted for him because he was a true local who knew the problems the area faced and knew the people dealing with those problems. The connection of these people, their musical histories and their newly-acquired political status is the relentless DIY work ethic and local focus that comes from being a part of a local music scene for so long. It became part of who they were. They got their Malcolm Gladwell hours handing out fliers for shows, attending activist events in the scene and developing a tight relationship with their communities. And they had their causes they felt strongly about.
“DIY originated in the hardcore punk scene,” Brannan tells Noisey. “Now HGTV basically thinks they own it, but this is where DIY started—with a bunch of restless, creative kids who wanted to get their message out to the world, didn’t have a lot of money, didn’t have the means to do it, but certainly were passionate. And you had to find a way to do it. You had to make your own rules as you went along.”
Brannan did just that in his musical past, and it continued as he made his his foray into politics. Whether they're talking music or politics, when conventional routes aren’t an option, some people decide make their own way. For Brannan, it was starting his own political groups in Brooklyn after feeling like an outsider and disagreeing with the way things were run. For Roem, the path to election was just about as difficult as you could imagine. Roem, a transgender woman and longtime journalist, faced ruthless character criticism from her opponent, Bob Marshall, the self-described “chief homophobe” of Virginia.
According to the Washington Post, Roem out-funded Marshall 3-to-1, accumulating almost $500,000 in donations, and a significant chunk of that came from LGBT advocates across the country. In a district of 52,471 voters, Roem and her team of volunteers knocked on doors more than 75,000 times. Roem, a lifelong resident of Northern Virginia, focused on one hyper-local issue for her campaign: Route 28, an infamous stretch of road outside of Washington, D.C. While Roem’s campaign focused heavily on that issue, her opposition focused solely on her gender identity. Marshall even refused to debate her on the issue of traffic.
“I’ve heard every nasty thing under the sun,” Roem said in an interview earlier this month with Broadly. “I’ve heard it all. And here I am, two days from Election Day, feeling pretty damn good about our case to win. And do you know why? All that stuff is just smack.”
This mentality of staying cool under tough situations is something Brannan chalks up to playing live, touring and meeting new people all over the world, putting himself in difficult situations.
“I would say the time I spent on the road and experiences I had touring the world in a hardcore band gave me two things,” he says. “It definitely gave me a sense of fearlessness, and it allowed me to really see everyone as true equal and see the importance of respecting everyone as a true equal, and removing any of those sort of man-made social constructs of class or that kind of stuff.”
For Roem, this entailed standing tall in the face of an establishment political figure who was more interested in viciously disparaging her character than in debating the issues at hand. With that attitude, she rose above and focused on Route 28 traffic, a real-life problem that affected her real-life constituents. Come Election Day, she beat Marshall, the guy who wanted to bring North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill” to her state.
“This is about the people of the 13th District disregarding fear tactics, disregarding phobias, where we celebrate you because of who you are, not despite it,” she told the Washington Post. It doesn’t get much more punk rock than that. And it’s not just the U.S. or some direct response to the 2016 election or partisan lines drawn before it.
Other activists with histories in metal and punk worldwide have taken direct action in their countries through politics as well. For example, in 2016, Richard Burgon was elected as a Member of Parliament in Leeds, U.K. In his pre-election days, Burgon was going to see metal shows and booking shows himself at a venue in Leeds.
In Taiwan, Freddy Lim was a leader of Amnesty International Taiwan and activist for Taiwanese independence before serving as a member of the Legislative Yuan, the legislative body for Taiwan and one branch of China’s government. Lim also spent years as the frontman for Chthonic, a band prohibited from playing in China, which he called “an honor” in an interview with Noisey last year.
Lim grew up under controversial Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, in a time of martial law and book bans. Growing up, he supported Chinese unification, because that was what he was taught. After he turned 18 and martial law was lifted, he read everything he could about Taiwan’s government history, and became enraged.“18 years of my life were stolen by the government,” he said. “I was so angry.”
From there, he became involved in social activism, volunteering, and anti-government campaigns. The lyrical content of Chthonic’s music shifted from normal teen angst caused by relationship woes to rage against the government that brainwashed a nation into believing something that wasn’t true and suppressing his own understanding of the world. Just like Brannan, he organized his own political action groups and parties. After founding the New Power Party in 2015, Lim won the 2016 Legislative Yuan election. In October of that year, he founded a Tibet caucus in the Legislative Yuan, appointing himself as the caucus leader.
One could point to the idea that the hardcore kids who threw themselves against each other at Indecision or Cththonic shows are now voting as a way to explain this sea change, but the bottom line is that these musicians were able to use their drive, self-motivation, knowledge of grassroots promotion, and DIY ethics to make sure it was done right. They didn’t have any extraordinarily special skills or unlikely talent—but they did have the work ethic, the local pride, and causes they felt were worth fighting for. Just like they put on shows, released records, or created their own spaces, they knew they could do it themselves. They had to.
As Brannan says, there will always be activism in the scene with no relation to electoral politics, but there will also be those who decide to put themselves in the seats of power once thought to be reserved for someone else.
“I think at one point you realize that there’s always going to be a place for activism, and there’s a place for people that are going to stand outside and throw the proverbial rocks at the building,” he says. “But there’s also going to be a place for people to find their way inside the building and try to affect change from the inside out. And I think that’s the road I took. I said, ‘OK, I know what it’s like to be an activist. I know the power of activism. Now let me put on a suit and tie, and try to fight my way from the inside.”
Brendan Menapace is on Twitter.