Voice, Stage, & The Responsibility Of The Modern Artist

The National, Maroon 5, Ibeyi, and more weigh in on their view of the voice and role of the artist in society

Shirley Manson of Garbage raises a triumphant fist live on the Rage and Rapture Tour

The voice of the artist, the performer, the entertainer has rarely been as pronounced as it has been over the past year. Much of this is due to the advent of social media and the ease of publishing and access to information that the variety of platforms provide. The arts, however, have a long history of commentary and influence on politics.

Many will point to the late 1960s as an obvious point of reference where popular culture made wide and well-publicized commentary on government actions. Much of this can be attributed to the creation of the transistor by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley in 1947, the development of which created the first transistor radios and later led to the creation of the World Wide Web – over 130 quadrillion transistors are currently produced per year, most made of silica, which is where Silicon Valley gets its name from.

Back in 1937, leaders of the Third Reich hosted two art exhibitions in Munich, Germany. One, the “Great German Art Exhibition”, featured art Hitler and other officials deemed acceptable and reflective of an ideal Aryan society. The other was referred to as “Degenerate Art Exhibition”, which was generally modern or abstract and created by people disavowed by the Nazis: Jews, Communists, and the like. The “degenerate art” was presented in dark, narrow rooms, accompanied by derogatory slogans, with one catalog entry describing a room as “the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or pencil.”

Over the past year, protest via arts and entertainment has once again been at center stage. From concerts for political candidates to albums supporting Planned Parenthood to taking a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the position of artists, athletes, and those given a public stage has been at the center of every type of media. With this kind of attention comes a great deal of power and responsibility.

For the last year in interviews, we have been asking musicians how they view the voice of the artist today. We received a variety of answers. Most stated that they believe they have some sort of responsibility to make social commentary, while a minority believe their most important job is to provide people with a place to escape from all that s***.

There is a large part of America’s audience who think the artist’s job is to “Shut up and sing, keep politics out of it,” the voice of escapism, one would hope. But we simply can’t forget that race, socioeconomics, gender, education, ego and a variety of other factors shape each individual’s views on who deserves to voice their thoughts on matters of politics, race, religion, and society. It’s also important to consider that this country decided long ago that everyone has the right to free speech. And to look at it the way James Valentine of Maroon 5 explained it, “Just because I chose to be an entertainer, it doesn’t mean I gave up my citizenship. I still vote and I still have my own opinions and I have just as much a right to talk about them as anyone else.”

Everyone has a voice, but not everyone has a stage to showcase it. Therefore, are those with a stage responsible to those who do not have one?

Christian rapper KB told us that one of the first things Mao Zedong did after taking over China was “kill all the artists”, “because artists are able to communicate the deepest feelings of individuals in ways that no one else can. And they also give direction and guidance and allegiance.” Whether or not this is true is a matter of conjecture, but we do know that in today’s 24-hour media world that more attention is on those with large social followings than ever before, giving them a larger stage to share their opinions.

The current President of the United States boasts over 43 million followers on Twitter and regularly states opinions on a range of topics, including society, politics, arts, entertainment, and culture. Many artists have larger followings than POTUS, from Lady Gaga to Rihanna to Justin Bieber, and each has the opportunity to create similar-sized media storms with singular posts.

KB also told us that he “just read a study (although we do not know what this study was) and the study was saying that most people meet their understanding of who God is through pop icons. That the music that pop icons make is where people gain a sense of understanding of the world, and it’s a big part of the nurturing of a person’s world view, the music that they are listening to, or the icons and their opinions and things in that nature. So to me, I believe we have been given a platform as artists to help shape the direction of the world.” Certainly this is a matter of conjecture as well that can easily be attributed to ego.

French musician Lisa-Kaindé Diaz of Ibeyi shared her views on the voice of the artist saying, “I would say it’s essential because when I’m lost in my personal life, I always try to find answers in a book or in a song or in a painting or in a movie. I never look at politicians or people in finance or whatever. I don’t look at people that actually are ruling the world today for inspiration or for answers. I always find answers with art or with musicians and I think that’s so important.”

What exactly is an artist doing in the first place? Is not all art some sort of social commentary? “I’ve been a little confused, a little frustrated with what it is about musicians that always feel like there is some distinction,” explained Matt Berninger of The National, “like, ‘Hey my politics are this, and my art is this.’ Musicians are the only artists… they don’t go to novelists and go, ‘Hey man, stick with romance,’ or whatever [laughs]. If an artist or a painter says like, ‘Oh, I try to keep politics out of my work,’ I’m like, ‘Then what are you painting? Like George Bush is a more interesting painter than you are, what are you painting?’ If you paint flower pots, at this point it’s still even political. It’s a choice not to. The choice not to is almost more political or something.”

Earlier this year, the current executive branch of the United States government suggested that they might cut the entire budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. The proposal would make it more difficult for artists without resources to have the funding to make political commentary. The arts have long been a place for the disenfranchised to give voice to their struggles, and the NEA has long supported these acts. In the spring of 2017 the NEA announced grants for the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Latino Public Broadcasting, The Center for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Art & Culture, and a multidisciplinary series featuring underrepresented theater, music, dance, interdisciplinary, and film artists of Latino, Muslim, and other minority backgrounds, amongst many others.

Whether or not the NEA remains in its current state is still to be seen, but nonetheless the voice and prominence of the artist’s voice is more accessible and therefore crucial than ever before. Black Thought of The Roots explains, “I feel like the voice of the artist and the arts now is more important and more meaningful than ever. That’s just the way that the arts have kind of evolved. I feel like those of us who are in the public eye and those who are in a position to create, it’s more important than ever to be conscious of making some sort of a social commentary, especially those of us who are the elder statesmen.”

This year, political music was more visible than it has been in some time. From Kendrick Lamar’s “XXX”, which comments on the perpetual struggles of African Americans; Venice Staples’ “BagBak”, which discusses issues such as police brutality and the prison industrial complex; Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”, which discusses the intersection between classism and racism to projects for political causes such as compilations like 7-Inches for Planned Parenthood, Our First 100 Days, and 1,000 Days, 1,000 Songs, 2017 has been filled with statements from artists on politics and society.

It’s obvious that artists are speaking out and have made it clear their voices need to be heard. Art is political and in today’s world, artists have the stage and therefore the moral responsibility to make social commentary. As Matt Berninger of the National puts it, “I just don’t know how any artist now isn’t untangling it, isn’t working with it, isn’t trying to figure it out because it is like a swimmer saying, ‘But actually I don’t like to get wet.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to be an interesting swimmer.’”

Check out artists’ views on the voice and role of the artist below:

Big Head Todd and the Monsters (Todd Mohr)I view the artist’s voice as being one of the most important parts of human society. Now, today’s world is a little different I think, because so much of what would probably be considered art and humanities has become entertainment. So in an environment of entertainment, I think a lot of things become difficult for artists. One, you have to make money, so there’s pressure to be commercial, and so on, because the focus becomes so much on success, I don’t know that artists have much to say. I know that they’re out there, but I just don’t get the feeling from our culture that we’re really tuned into growing up as a society. So I think that there’s a lot of important work to be done for artists in every ilk, every genre.

Bully (Alicia Bognanno)It feels like right now it’s just so exhausting because I feel like every day there is something that is happening and it’s really hard to keep up with. I would just say little opportunities that we could do or take part in, we try and be involved in or if there is some sort of fundraising we can do to help, in that case we usually do it like that. It’s hard because no matter what your views are, you are just going to get attacked for them either way. So it can be really exhausting. But I think as a band we just try to be active where we can be, and contribute when we can, and there’s still so many bands that are doing a way better job than us that are just, like, on it and it’s kind of hard to keep up these days because I feel like, as I said, there’s something new every day. A lot of bands are involved in that kind of stuff now and it’s awesome because it creates paths for more musicians to get involved and even just the links that they’ll send around or places where you can make donations and stuff, stuff like that is really helpful to see every day on social media. Yeah, we try.

Craig DavidOn one hand, it looks like there is so much going on in the world that you can see, that it’s kind of at this boiling point of just, like, if it’s not war, it’s on the brink of war, or the hurricanes that are going on, or the mass shootings that are going on more recently, which open up all these topics. And then to see the support of people who have now built a foundation where they are speaking to people who are following them and listening to their voice, I think it’s such an amazing time because even with the platforms that we’re talking about, with Twitter and Instagram, and especially Twitter, is that it’s a given, this is not local anymore, it doesn’t matter where it is in the world, it is now worldwide.

I know exactly what is going on in a completely different country, and you can tap into it completely, and I think, as an artist, being able to use your voice in a positive light, to highlight something that you feel passionately about, I think it’s one of the most amazing things that this whole evolution of social media has given people. And I’m so pro speak your mind, if it’s for change and making this world a better place, because ultimately it’s almost like you’re wasting an opportunity, and if you can see it for what it is and you can see where the land lies, there’s so much ground for improvement.

And I’m all about, not just positive thinking, but for people just, kind of, giving awareness. Because you just need one person to be like, not to preach, but to throw it up there and allow someone to feel passionate in themselves, to then go and say, “You know what, I kinda feel the same way you feel about that. Let me go and help this person. Let me go donate to this. Let me go and go to my local congressman and say something and make something change here.” I think that’s amazing. I love seeing people who step up, especially who are having incredible amounts of success, and you’re like that’s just what this is all about. That’s what music is. It’s not just playing songs and getting them on the radio or streaming on Spotify. It’s more than that now.

Death From Above (Jesse Keeler)I think Seb and I sort of sit on a lot of things, kind of outside any box. I think being an artist is part of what has kind of enabled that position. We were talking about it recently, like we read massive books. I’ve been studying economics for the last 12 years on my own, just getting textbooks and reading the whole thing, and just going from one to the next. My house is full of them. I was actually doing that today. And we were talking about who the hell has time to just read for three hours a day. This isn’t school, this is in my spare time. We have time to dive into that kind of stuff, when most people, normal job, your days are full. You’ve got some air of responsibilities, and I guess it’s a function of us just wanting to try and take advantage of that time, and it’s a positive thing to do with that time we end up having. On the road for that matter, we just read like crazy. It’s a little nerdy, but I feel like the more you know, the less extreme a lot of your ideas become, and that eventually becomes alienating because you are surrounded by people who may only have a moment to sort of assimilate an opinion on whatever it is presented in front of them. When the more you know, the harder it is to be so black and white about anything, and that’s alienating. And you end up sort of, or at least it has been for us, I feel like much more of an observer in the world than a participant. I expressed that to Seb one night and he was like, “Yes, holy s***, that’s it.” It’s a weird spot to be. I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t want to sound like a weird prick by talking about, but you end up in this weird spot where I try my best to relate to the lives of other people, but I’ve been doing this for my whole adult life. I guess it makes it weird.

For Seb and I, we’re surrounded by people who get pretty heated about everything, and I don’t want to just ramble about it endlessly, but I hope you get the point of what I’m saying. We’re part of the world, but then also kind of removed from it due to circumstances of our lives.

People save up to travel. I don’t save up to travel [laughs]. I travel out of necessity. It’s weird. I was on the Eiffel Tower years ago and I got there before it opened, and this was in a different time when people weren’t as paranoid about this stuff, and the elevator wasn’t running and the security guards were just like, “You can just go up the stairs.” So I went up to the top, and I was just there by myself for about an hour, and then the first elevator load comes up and it’s all these old tourists from America, and there’s this old lady and I helped her with her wheelchair and she was looking out at the city like, “I’ve been waiting for this since I was a little girl, to see this. I can’t believe it,” and she was moved to tears, and I was just thinking, “I’m just a f***ing bum.” I slept on a park bench that night [laughs], and here I am doing this thing with this nice old lady who saved up for years to do it. F*** man, this is a weird life.

Just to be very clear, in regards to the title, everything we have to say is on the record. That’s the point. We’re musicians; that’s how we communicate with the world. Whatever anyone gleans from it, that’s the right thing. It’s a piece of art. It’s our creation, which means whatever it means to us. But whatever anyone takes from it, that’s cool. I’m pretty sure different things in the songs mean different things to Sebastian and I. I wouldn’t want to color the enjoyment of the record by saddling it with my own ideas.

Deer Tick (John J. McCauley)I think it’s important for any artist who wants to speak their mind or fight injustices in the world. I personally try to let my actions speak for themselves. I’m not much of an activist in any way, or online or something. I’m not one to go off on some political rant on stage either, but I think if you see the charities that we’ve supported, and get to meet us on a personal level, you’ll understand pretty quick that we are all bleeding heart liberals.

I just don’t really do a lot of the stuff on Twitter and all that because I just don’t like being on my phone [laughs]. But I think it’s important, and I appreciate it when an artist does speak up. I do check Twitter every now and then, and I really like a lot of the commentary I see by people like Patton Oswalt, and there’s too many to mention.

Gogol Bordello (Eugene Hütz)One of my main shaping artists, someone that was influential to me, Youssef Boiz, German sculptor, who decided he was going to be a sculptor while he was in a plane crash, like peeking into the f***ing flying to crash and die into the f***ing soil, decided to be an artist in that situation.

Death is quite life affirming. Everything is quite life affirming if you think about it because life consists of light and dark matter interaction. Consequently, dark matter is pretty life affirming. People in the west somehow don’t see it. People in the east see it more, but getting back to what we were talking about… Artist takes a very important role in shaping political spirit of the times. There is no doubt about it. But he does it not through necessarily some kind of slogans and political proverb. Artist is coming from another dimension. Artist’s job becomes on of warming up the heart, and warming up the heart means cutting through the chains, cutting through the thinking, cutting through the political agendas. It is cutting through all pragmatic sides of humanity and hacking into their heart and warming the heart up.

From there we are going back to I perceive therefore I’m here. We are coming back to I perceive therefore I’m responsible. Instead of, “I think therefore I am.” That’s a very one eyed f***ing way of being. In that way artists can really have tremendous impact. You will often find that a particular artist can be quite dubious in his political statements, yet his work will have this very stimulating impact. Look at Dennis Hopper. I feel off the chair when I found out that Dennis Hopper was a republican. How can that be? I don’t know the answer to the question, yet his work, his body of work, is winding toward something very exploratory and it was pushing people towards self-exploration and facing their own demons.

Ibeyi (Lisa-Kaindé Diaz)I would say it’s essential because when I’m lost in my personal life, I always try to find answers in a book or in a song or in a painting or in a movie. I never look at politicians or people in finance or whatever. I don’t look at people that actually are ruling the world today for inspiration or for answers. I always find answers with art or with musicians and I think that’s so important. Also, I don’t think artists have to talk about what is happening in the world, but I think if they want to, and feel strong enough to do it, it’s so wonderful and important.

KBI just read a study and the study was saying that most people meet their understanding of who God is through pop icons. That the music that pop icons make is where people gain a sense of understanding of the world, and it’s a big part of the nurturing of a person’s world view, the music that they are listening to, or the icons and their opinions and things in that nature. So to me, I believe we have been given a platform as artists to help shape the direction of the world.

You think about dictators like Mao, who when he takes over, what is the first thing he does? He kills all the artists because artists are able to communicate the deepest feelings of individuals in ways that no one else can. And they also give direction and guidance and allegiance. I can be more influential in a person’s life than their pastor, parent or teacher. I will fight pretty hard against anybody that says otherwise. That’s the reality. These people are spending thousands of dollars on you. I’ve seen these numbers. I can’t believe, people are flying from other continents to come see you. I’ve experienced this. There is something to this.

So anyway, I’m getting off… I’m getting angry just thinking about this [laughs]. But the fact of the matter is we have a responsibility to speak into those things that consider the audience is multi-faceted. I’ve got to realize that I can’t just throw things out if I want to be understood. I have to massage and explain, even though they are going to be rejected by some, but to do the work of using my platform to help fight for good. That’s what folks have been doing for a long time and all my heroes, artists like Nina Simone, these are the people I look up to because that’s what they did.

Maroon 5 (James Valentine)I think it’s important for artists, but I think the same responsibility is there for doctors, lawyers, gardeners. I think everyone needs to speak out. I think we are facing such bizarre circumstances and there’s just so much injustice, I think it’s more important for artists to speak out more than ever. And I think you’re seeing that happen, especially on social media. It’s just a really weird time and I think everybody needs to speak up.

There has, in the past at least, been this attitude of, “Shut up and sing, keep politics out of it,” but I just think we’ve never dealt with anything like this before, and I think it’s always been an artist’s responsibility to speak out, or just like a citizen’s responsibility.

Just because I chose to be an entertainer, it doesn’t mean I gave up my citizenship. I still vote and I still have my own opinions and I have just as much a right to talk about them as anyone else. You kind of get that feedback from people who don’t agree with you, which is unfortunate [laughs]… but yeah, people need to speak up.

The National (Matt Berninger)I’ve been a little confused, a little frustrated with what it is about musicians that always feel like there is some distinction, like, “Hey my politics are this, and my art is this.” Musicians are the only artists… they don’t go to novelists and go, “Hey man, stick with romance,” or whatever [laughs]. If an artist or a painter says like, “Oh, I try to keep politics out of my work,” I’m like, “Then what are you painting? Like George Bush is a more interesting painter than you are, what are you painting?” If you paint flower pots, at this point it’s still even political. It’s a choice not to. The choice not to is almost more political or something.

I feel like I never tried to separate it. I don’t even try to separate it within a song, if a song is a love song, or a breakup song, or a song about drinking, or a song about Washington, or a song about planet Earth, every single song is probably about those things one way or another, and now, I guess for me, since 9/11 is the obvious moment, but the truth is for me I think it was when George W. Bush won, is when I just stopped being… it rewired me to thinking, “Holy s***, the world could really go down the tubes, so fast.” That was when George Bush won. And then since then there has been a sequence of both wonderful but also so many traumas for all of us, both globally and locally, trauma after trauma after trauma. I know it’s probably no different collectively over time, from like World War II, the death and trauma are constant, but this feels like maybe because the amount of the feed that we are getting from everything, and we are absorbing it, but it’s such a highly… it’s in the blood stream, it’s in the water, it’s in the air, it’s in everything we see. I just don’t know how any artist now isn’t untangling it, isn’t working with it, isn’t trying to figure it out because it is like a swimmer saying, “But actually I don’t like to get wet.” I’m like, “I don’t know if you’re going to be an interesting swimmer.”

Nick WaterhouseI think the voice of the artist right now is much closer to the Medieval Era than it’s ever been [laughs] because we are… The actual voice of the artist is very quiet. I think the conception of entertainment and consumption is at an all-time high. I also think that the pomp and circumstance and self importance of the court in that period of time, sort of represents the industrial aspect of entertainment, meaning not record labels anymore. Everyone is complicit now in the consumption of the kabuki of… It’s almost like, I was reading this book recently about the Russian postmodernism right now, and the guy who works for Putin who created a feeling of like, “Everybody knows that nothing means anything, but then some things mean something.” That’s sort of how I perceive the voice of the artist [laughs]. We’re like a resistance. It’s like being in the underground in occupied France.

Prophets of Rage (Tim Commerford): There is no doubt that when you decide to pick up a cause, you run the risk of alienating a potential market. I think that is a driving motivation as to maybe why we don’t hear more artists step up and write songs that are pertinent and have something to say. But I love the challenge, and that inspires me. I don’t know why, but I’ve always loved being the underdog and it’s still here today. We went to the difficulty level of this game that we’re playing and picked extreme, and that’s where we operate.

The Roots (Black Thought)I feel like the voice of the artist and the arts now is more important and more meaningful than ever. That’s just the way that the arts have kind of evolved. I feel like those of us who are in the public eye and those who are in a position to create, it’s more important than ever to be conscious of making some sort of a social commentary, especially those of us who are the elder statesmen.

Stereophonics (Richard Jones)I think the artist, usually, the job is to write positively, like the light at the end of the tunnel, and be entertainment for people. Like people deal with enough in their daily lives, and when it comes to music, movies, books, that’s the escape. That’s what people do to forget about if they’ve had a bad day. They go to those places to get away from it all, and I think being musicians and artists, that’s kind of the main job really, is to make people lose themselves and dream away.

Sylvan Esso (Amelia Meath)The voice of the artist is very, very important. It’s almost like the idea of evolution is real, and the idea of when I was coming up in the late 80’s, we had a big a** cellular phone. That thing was so heavy, you had to hold it with two hands, and now the phone is basically so skinny you could pick it up with one pinky. So evolution is important.

The position that an artist used to play, where they used to just talk about it, now an artist is actually acting on it. They are actually helping influence legislation and policy. Talk show hosts at night, they take their art different now because they actually know someone in Congress is paying attention to what they are saying. For me, I feel like the entertainers now have morphed into a more natural space of where they can shape policy and legislation than a politician because the people have lost faith in the politicians, but somehow they have not lost faith in the entertainer or the sports figure.