When you think of musical activism what comes to mind? It's probably an image of Bob Geldof eternally looking like he's about 53 years old having an aneurism down the phone at someone about something going wrong at Live Aid. Or maybe you think of all the heavily bouffanted rock stars themselves, in a blurry studio in the 80s, coming together to remind the culturally, socially and economically diverse people of Africa that there's something called Christmas they're supposed to be celebrating.
But a lot has changed since the 80s – even if Bob Geldof looks exactly the same – and musical activism is no different. Instead of archaic things like 'phone calls' and 'leaflets', musical activism today harnesses the power of the all-seeing, all-knowing internet to further the cause in a way that is quicker, more personalised and, therefore, more efficient than ever before. We now have an intimacy with celebrities we've never had before, which means when they're moved by issues outside their industry – climate change, poverty, racism – they can broadcast their views to millions in an instant.
One such musician who you may not know is also an activist is John Legend, who recently teamed up with Belvedere Vodka and the HIV/AIDS charity RED to release a bottle of vodka from which 50% of proceeds go to 'The Global Fund To Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria'. Speaking about the campaign, Legend told us: "I think the way news works is that bad news gets highlighted more than good news. But even in the HIV/AIDS crisis, there's been a lot of good news over the last decade or so, and a lot of it has to do with the work of people like the Global Fund and the RED campaign."
And he's not the only musician supporting the campaign. According to Belvedere President Charles Gibb many other top stars are involved as well. "We started with Usher; we worked with Mary J. Blige; and we actually worked with Lady Gaga launching one of her albums, so we've got a number of leading artists involved," he told us.
For Legend, engaging with big issues isn't an afterthought to his music, it's something he considers intimately related to his work. "When I was a teenager, I wrote an essay about and I knew it was what I wanted to do in life – I wanted to become a musician and use my success to help other people," he said.
One of the ways Legend disseminates his message is through his Instagram account, where he reaches a phenomenal 4.9m people. In his recent weeks, images of him taking part in Hillary Clinton's 'Better Together' campaign for the presidency helped galvanise thousands. But how convinced is he in the efficacy of Instagram in changing people's minds?
"I think the fans are going to take what they're going to take from your social media," he says, honestly. "We share pictures of our family, we talk about political causes or we just have fun too… I try to use it as a platform to teach but also just to have fun too."
But if musical activism has potential in terms of raising issues to a wider audience, should all musicians be activists? Legend had this to say: "I think you have an awesome platform to do it and if you combine that platform with knowledge and actually getting to know people that are really working in the field and making positive contributions then you can amplify what they're doing."
Legend's idea, then, is to amplify the hard work of others. This is perhaps a better way of going about it, especially when some musicians aren't necessarily experts in the field they're talking about. Not all musicians have something to say, but when the right ones do, it's received with more recognition than the shrug that a lot of charities can induce in the average person on the street.
There's never really been a better time than now for musicians to get their views heard and amplify the work of others. Between Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, they have the tools they need to spread vital ideas to people from all walks of life. Who knew the Internet would end up being more than a vast repository of cat videos?