Isabella Ambrosio and Tessa Ndjonkou examine how and to what effect activism is added to live performances.
Celebrity culture has given us many things: parasocial relationships, inexhaustible gossip fuel and finally, live protest music. Slotting in tidbits of political discourse during live performances is common practice for a growing number of performers. But while past manifestations of this were not always met positively and could sign the end of one’s career or favor in the public eye (see Sinéad O’Connor); today, wearing your heart on your sleeve about where you stand politically is mandatory. This form of activism exists on a spectrum that goes from ‘blink and you miss it’ to did their publicist really allow this?
So, blame social media, blame the public or blame the industry, but there’s no denying that the art can no longer be completely separated from the artist. In 2022, global pop-stars must prove that they aren’t as disconnected from real-life problems as we might believe.
Harry Styles is no stranger to addressing socially relevant topics during his concerts. Notably his support of women, people of colour, the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalised people has made headlines and garnered attention on social media. On June 20th during a gig at Wembley he once again helped a fan come out just as he’d done so earlier in 2018 when he helped a young woman come out to her parents in San Jose. Often, during his concerts, fans will throw various pride flags that he will gratefully use during his sets. Following the United State’s Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade, he told the crowd in Austin, Texas that: “No one can tell you what to do with your body. It’s yours.”
Lil Nas X
Since his highly publicised coming-out in 2019. Montero, also known as Lil Nas X, has been an active and vocal advocate and representative of the LGBTQIA+ community. His embracing of his queer identity in his lyrics, “I might bottom on the low but I top sh**t”. The music video for his hit single “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and his live performance at the 2021 MTV VMA’s that concluded with a kiss with his male backup dancer have cemented him as a trailblazer in the rap scene. Despite this meteoric rise to fame, throughout his career he has made considerable pushes to empower both the queer community and African-American communities through his art and grassroot organizations. In anticipation for the release of his first studio album “MONTERO”, Lil Nas X introduced the Montero Baby Registry where fans could donate to community groups engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the United States. Additionally, the funds generated by the hit “Industry Baby” featuring Jack Harlow were donated to the Bail Project to alleviate the effects of disproportionate incarceration for Black men in the United States. Both as an artist and as a member of Gen Z, he’s repeatedly used social media and viral trends to rally fans to causes that are dear to them and himself.
Halsey is one of the loudest speakers on activism in modern media. They have become well known for their speech at 2018 Women’s March in New York, based on a poem they wrote about sexual assault. But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Recently, in 2022, protesting against the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in Arizona, they made a speech on women’s rights and the importance of women’s healthcare. They had asked pro-lifers to leave, and several fans actually walked out of the show. They continued this conversation on Twitter where they acknowledged that fans left the show during the middle of the speech, subtweeting, ‘downside of doing outdoor venues: no door to hit them on the way out’. They have also been seen at the George Floyd LA Protests. They continue to speak out on social media, often donating money to charities that have their interest at the moment.
Beyoncé has been an activist for Black culture on and offstage. She is extremely gifted in adding signals and aesthetics from Black culture into her work to convey her point. However, her statements are rarely explicit but rather subliminal and demand for an already sound understanding of the history of the African diaspora. Her groundbreaking performances at Coachella in 2018 were greatly inspired by HBCU (Historically Black College and University) performances. Similarly, the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show had a costume that was clearly reminiscent of the Black Panther Party. Throughout her Mrs. Carter Tour, Beyoncé performed a “Feminist” Interlude in which she sampled a part of Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk manifesto “We Should All be Feminists”. She also performed with Jay-Z during Hillary Clinton’s campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio in hopes to drive up the turnout for young people in the state.
In March of 2020, Billie Eilish teased a short film entitled “Not my problem” during her performance at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. The artist was denouncing the body-shaming and policing that she, like many women, experience regardless of their size and their preferred choice of clothing. The video resonated with many of her fans, who are often young women who grew up putting themselves under a significant amount of pressure, searching their bodies for “flaws” they were told they had by mainstream media. Having a public figure acknowledge that and be vulnerable of her own insecurities was powerful for many.
While it’s a different form of activism, Coldplay’s ‘Music of the Spheres’ World Tour is environmental activism. They’ve heavily publicised the fact that they’ve reduced carbon emissions by 50% this tour. They use solar, sustainable biofuels, rechargeable show battery systems, kinetic energy (dancefloors where fans can dance and the floor will convert that kinetic energy into power), and grid-renewable resources. This kind of activism is sly, but it’s also a roaring commentary on the general music industry and their willingness to cut corners, but also how easy it can be to be eco-friendly.
The United States entertainment industry is not the only one to practise this concert activism. In France, since 1992, a collective of French celebrities and artists host and perform a yearly concert to raise funds for people struggling with extreme poverty and homelessness in France. The performances and songs played often address precarious living conditions and the need for solidarity. At the initiative of French comedian Coluche, The Enfoirés (French for “Bastards”) give the funds they raised to The Restaurants of the Heart charity that then uses the money to buy food and necessities for those in need. In 2018, they raised up to 13 Million euros.
The Eurovision Song Contest is the strongest global manifestation of concert-activism there is. The political outreach music can have is found in the lyrics, the performances and the acceptance speeches. There are no subliminal messages and while the contest had been created to be an apolitical space where countries could compete , that could not be further from the current reality. Although it’s known as an infallible meme generator the competition has had powerful geopolitical and cultural challenges. The competition is known for the strides it has made for queer and trans visibility, with a significant number of presenters, performers and winners being from the LGBT community like YouTuber Nicki De Jager who presented in 2022, Bilal Hassani who performed in 2019 for France and Maneskin bassist Victoria Di Angelis, the winner of the 2021 edition.
By default, public figures are rarely afforded the benefit of their philanthropic work or activism socially being unseen. As a consequence, their actual pushes for change are constantly either being applauded or decried, and acts that rely on performance instead of an actual challenge of the status quo are glorified much more than they ought to be. The reliance of contemporary activism on media and technology begs the question of whether or not western activism is too dependent on visibility and public acknowledgment, to the detriment of “bottom-up” or grassroots movements. But, it also has to be said that a lot of these artists are protesting issues that need to be addressed by governments. It’s almost comical, watching people who are in entertainment, being more logical and politically driven than actual politicians themselves. It’s important that entertainers have stepped into the role of education and activism in order to put pressure on political figures to make the decisions and calls that need to be made.