THE UPSIDE DOWN
From Brett Kavanaugh to Kanye West, How Politics Is Mixing With Music in the Weirdest of Ways
In an intensely volatile political climate, musicians are being increasingly drawn into major issues like Supreme Court nominations and key Senate races.
In last weekend’s SNL premiere that was memorable for all the wrong reasons, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, wearing his now-signature “MAGA” cap, concluded his performance at the end of the episode by launching into a passionate pro-Trump diatribe.
Ye, who’s recently become something of a right-wing folk hero for his unhinged conservative views and support of Donald Trump, followed up his notorious SNL appearance with an interview opposite TMZ’s Harvey Levin on Monday. During his rambling, at times incomprehensible chat with Levin, Ye ruminated on new ways to improve American politics (“There should be a group of super-knowledgeable people that come from all cultures that then make the amendments on our Constitution,” he observed) and expressed his support for the president (“I support our president, bottom line, no matter who they are”).
Ye’s journey into Trumpism has been divisive, to say the least. While the president and his ilk have praised the rapper for his newfound beliefs, celebrities like Chris Evans, Lana Del Rey and Snoop Dogg took to social media to decry Ye’s far-right turn.
Of course Hollywood, and especially the music industry, have never exactly been apolitical. Celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Danny DeVito have voiced their support for the likes of Bernie Sanders; on the other end of the political spectrum, GOP stalwarts like Clint Eastwood and Ted Nugent have proudly aligned themselves with the right. None of this is particularly extraordinary, given that celebrities are of course entitled to their own political opinions, but the recent political shitstorm surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has seen traditional ideals and implicit party affiliations completely upended. The fact that Ye, an African-American rapper from Chicago, could so blithely support a racist president who looks down on his hometown of Chicago and referred to African nations as “shithole” countries is baffling, to say the least. Yet the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination threatens to disrupt other dynamics in the music industry and drag more musicians into the political sphere.
The British reggae band UB40 was unexpectedly thrust into the conversation surrounding Kavanaugh earlier this week, when a New York Times report revealed that Kavanaugh was involved in a bar fight after the band’s Connecticut concert in 1985, when he was a junior at Yale. Kavanaugh and crew started the ruckus because they were convinced a man at the bar they were frequenting was UB40 frontman Ali Campbell. When the man, who was definitely not Campbell, told them to stop staring, Kavanaugh threw ice at his head, and the melée ensued.
In an op-ed for The Guardian on Tuesday, the real-life Campbell wrote that he was rather unwittingly drawn into the Supreme Court controversy, and was quick to deny his involvement in any such fight. And while Campbell doesn’t remember the concert in question, he maintains that after playing a gig, he was unlikely to go to a bar: “Last thing I would do is go to the bar over the road after a show—I jump straight into a car and go back to the hotel,” he explained.
“American politics seems particularly unsavoury at the moment: it’s at an all-time low,” Campbell continued, saying of Kavanaugh: “I don’t know the bloke, so I don’t know whether he’s innocent or guilty, but I wouldn’t support anyone assaulting women.”
“It is a big surprise to find out that Kavanaugh used to come to see us in his Yale days,” Campbell concluded. “You don’t expect a rightwing Republican to follow a leftwing reggae socialist band from Birmingham.”
Indeed, given the way Kavanaugh is currently presenting his high school and college self—as a beer-loving yet totally wholesome young man who was, above all, respectful of women—it seems unlikely that he’d attend a “leftwing reggae socialist” concert. But as Kanye West is so contentiously proving with his right-wing crusades, political affiliations and musical styles or tastes are no longer analogous; in Kavanaugh’s case, enjoying the music of a “socialist” reggae group is not, apparently, indicative of future political leanings.
Kavanaugh’s former Georgetown Prep classmate Bill Barbot has also been speaking with media outlets, mostly to describe the culture of Georgetown Prep in no uncertain terms. Barbot, who would later go on to front DC alternative rock band Jawbox, was a freshman at Georgetown Prep when Kavanaugh was a senior. “Consent as a concept did not even exist,” Barbot said in an interview with The Washingtonian of the culture at the school while he and Kavanaugh were students. “It was not in our lexicon.”
In a strange move for a would-be punk rocker, Barbot decried portrayals of the school as fostering the traditional high school hierarchy of nerds, jocks, and bullies, and made efforts to humanize the athletes. He even told The Washingtonian that he was friendly with people on the football team, of which Kavanaugh was also a member: “They weren’t all these horrible lunkheads. There was definitely lunkheaded behavior, but there were good guys who were football players,” he recalled, adding, “Brett [Kavanaugh] was a big man on campus. He was a football player, he was captain of the basketball team.” While high school is traditionally a sore subject for many musicians and artists, Barbot seems committed to defending his experience at Georgetown Prep, punk ethos be damned. Less concerned with maintaining an apathetic punk-rock persona than he is with painting a nuanced portrait of his high school experience, Bardot’s break in character is becoming something of a trend among musicians (see: Ye).
Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in addition to the dismal prospects his confirmation would pose for women and other minority groups, has galvanized many musicians to speak out—some, including Alicia Keys, REM, and Erykah Badu, have even lent their support to anti-Kavanaugh protest concerts around DC.
It’s the liberal, pro-equality worldview that’s come to be expected of most musicians—and one that certain GOP politicians still see benefit in denigrating. Take, for instance, the recent attempts at a smear campaign by the Texas GOP. Their target was pro-choice, pro-immigrant Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who’s running against Republican Ted Cruz for a Senate seat in November. O’Rourke played bass in the band Foss in the early 1990s; after he didn’t debate his opponent Cruz in August, the Texas GOP tweeted, “Maybe Beto can’t debate Ted Cruz because he already had plans…” along with a picture of O’Rourke with his band in the ‘90s, wearing a dress and looking, for lack of a better term, like a DILF. Being a musician, at least a cool one, is apparently worthy of a smear by the Texas GOP, but their plan to band-shame Beto backfired when more than one person pointed out how cool and “relatable” it made O’Rourke seem—especially when compared to the nerdy, creepy Cruz from the same era.
Our current, totally bonkers political environment not only makes speaking out far more fraught but it’s also transforming the way music and politics intersect. And it’s only gonna get weirder.