The Sanders Campaign Is Using Independent Music to Turn Out New Voters



I live in Boston, which is known for its icy weather, shitty public transportation, and neoliberal Democratic supermajority. But none of these things stopped nearly 13,000 people from gathering on Boston Common this past Saturday morning to watch Bernie Sanders give a roof-raiser of a campaign speech. On Newbury Street, where rich people will drop a week’s salary on haircuts, there were mobs of people carrying Bernie signs and making Boston feel like a leftist playground.

Given all the colleges that are consolidated in Boston and Sanders’ popularity with youth voters, the groundswell of grassroots support wasn’t entirely surprising. But according to an email to volunteers from the Sanders campaign’s Massachusetts field director on Monday, one of the largest armies of door-knockers in the entire state hailed from Worcester, a former manufacturing town in a region of the state that tends to go red in big elections.

“Massachusetts continues to be the most active of the Super Tuesday states (California aside!) for Bernie Sanders,” the email read. “Why? In a word: Worcester. 24.3 percent of the canvassers we had this weekend launched out of Worcester.”

Democrats come to the Central Mass. city for the state convention every few years before hightailing it back to Boston. But the Sanders campaign has long prioritized making inroads with voters long-since abandoned by traditional Democrats—politically and economically speaking. And given that the state Democratic Party machinery is mostly concentrated in the Boston area, a strong turnout in the Worcester area could be instrumental to a Super Tuesday win in the state.

The Worcester canvassing news coincided with the final day of BERNIEPALOOZA, a four-day marathon of canvassing and music staged by Bernie Sanders volunteers. Over the course of a long weekend, artists and fans from all over the state (and beyond) converged in Worcester for a weekend of music and politics—knocking on doors and making calls through the day, and tossing back beers at official concerts and unofficial DIY spin-off concerts after sundown. The Saturday-night lineup featured heavy-hitters with Worcester roots, like Bob’s Burgers voice actor H. John Benjamin and comedian and Majority Report podcaster Sam Seder, while other nights leaned heavily on artists from the city’s growing independent music scene.

This isn’t exactly new organizing territory for Team Sanders. Since his first run for President kicked off in 2015, Sanders has been endorsed by enough musicians to populate a Coachella-scale festival, from Cardi B to Kim Gordon. And the campaign has this leveraged musical talent to fire up young voters. Worcester’s Berniepalooza was actually preceded by a 2016 concert in Chicago, also called Berniepalooza. Four years later, the tagline seems to have become a de facto umbrella for many different concerts staged in support of the campaign.

Sometimes, this concert-as-a-campaign-event model can make the Sanders campaign feel more like a traveling music festival. As Kara Weisenstein wrote for Mic a few weeks back, “the biggest indie rock gig of the year is a Bernie Sanders rally.” There was the Strokes gig in New Hampshire that ended with Julian Casablancas launching into “New York City Cops” and inviting fans to bum-rush the stage. Soccer Mommy opened a Houston rally for Sanders just a couple days later. In California, before Super Tuesday, Public Enemy treated Los Angeles residents to a stadium concert—with support from Dick Van Dyke and Sarah Silverman! Good luck finding a lineup like that in any city, on a given week.

The Worcester edition of Berniepalooza, which was going on right after the LA rally, was a much more homegrown affair. When I arrived at Sunday night’s concert, staged at a club called Electric Haze, a local poet who calls himself Malt Schlitz Mann was bathed in green light on the stage. Mann is a Worcester resident, but he grew up just north of the Massachusetts state line.

“I’d like to tell you about something we have in Vermont called Dr. Dynasaur,” Mann said. He was wearing a pinstriped blazer and talking directly to the clusters of spectators filling up on lagers at the bar and taking fruity puffs of hookah in the nearby lounge area. There were a lot of beards, a lot of tattoos, and a lot of jackets bearing pins from campaigns past. Many of these folks, ranging from young to older middle age, had been out in the cold all day, talking up Sanders to prospective voters. Mann was warming them up.

Dr. Dynasaur, the organization Mann was speaking about, is a program that guarantees health and dental services to low-income children living in Vermont. “I was one of those children,” Mann told the audience. “The amount of things that we can do, as a young generation, is extremely hampered by healthcare access. So when you decide to donate money or time, please think about all of the futures that you’re helping to build by showing up for Bernie.”

After savoring a volley of applause from the crew of canvassers and concert vets at the bar, Mann jumped into a poem likening Jeff Bezos to “a bejeweled skull that will never stop grinning.” It was a seamless segue. And it was something you won’t encounter at most campaign events—pure unpasteurized irreverence.

In many ways, it’s fitting that Berniepalooza was happening in Central Mass. Worcester is one of several cities and towns across Massachusetts where neoliberal economic policies haven’t lifted most boats. The decline of America’s manufacturing sector hit Worcester hard through the 1980s and 90s. Today, the city is home to a number of biotech companies, but the prosperity has not trickled down to the majority of Worcester residents, which could be why Sanders’ progressive agenda is gaining traction here. As such, an event like BerniePalooza is the perfect metaphor for the “Not Me, Us” ethos at the heart of the Senator’s campaign—the idea that change will only happen if a grassroots movement brings new voters into the process and gets loud and organized enough to convince the recalcitrant politicians who have the power to enact policies like a $15 dollar minimum wage Medicare For All.

There’s another reason why Worcester makes sense as an organizing hub: Rising rents in Boston have driven artists and DIY creatives to put down roots in the city. It’s a development reflected in the eclecticism of Sunday’s line-up, which included a set of bluesy folk music from guitarist and singer Charles Ketter, a barn-burner jam from Fake Trey Trio (the name a wry nod to the Phish frontman’s solo project), anarchist rapper MessiahCarey, and hip-hop duo Ghost of the Machine and D.O.S. They’re pillars of the Worcester underground, and they had friends there that night.

“It’s kind of logical to me that Bernie has been receiving all these endorsements from musicians,” Charles Ketter said to me at the bar, after his performance. “If I’m a bass player and I suck, the band’s gonna suck. So I think Bernie really sees himself as part of an outfit. He’s not a savior. If he gets all corrupt, we’re gonna call him out on it.”

Sunday’s concert was the work of Tovia Ben Shapiro, a concert promoter and DJ who took part in the Occupy movement. He’s called Worcester home for 12 years and has been active in politics for most of his life. This was the first time Shapiro has organized a show for a campaign.

“A friend of mine in the electronic music scene in Boston was working with the Sanders campaign on things involving arts, and they reached out to me about organizing a concert for Bernie here in Worcester,” Shapiro said. “Not unlike Bernie, my dad’s cousins were killed in the Holocaust, so there was this idea in the background of my family that bad politics can kill, and that good politics can help people. That’s kind of been my magnetic North, and this show is an extension of that.”

On my way to the bar for a beer, I met another concert organizer: Randal Meraki, a metal sculptor and veteran clad in a floor-length leather trench coat.

You can often find Meraki creating wrought-iron fences and spiral staircases at a local makerspace studio called The WorcShop, but this weekend, he helped organize and stage one of the Sanders events in the city.

As Meraki sees it, if musicians are really feeling the Bern right now, it’s partly because they know what it’s like to feel torn between pursuing your craft and surviving in America. “Artists and musicians have some of the least capitalistic products to offer society, but some of the most culturally enriching,” Meraki says. “The fact that we have ‘starving artists’ in the richest country in the world is abhorrent. You should be able to study your art in order to enrich your community, and you should be able to subsist on that.”

If you’re an artist trying to make it in Massachusetts, you generally have two choices: You can brave the astronomical rents of Boston, or opt out and retreat to the bucolic isolation of Western Mass, which is largely cut off from the Boston area’s transit infrastructure. Worcester is one of the last semi-affordable places to live without cutting the cord from the Boston nightlife scene. But now that young professionals are migrating into Worcester to take advantage of the low rents, there’s a distinct possibility that city will evolve into a Boston bedroom community, a destination for upwardly mobile commuters looking for a place to eat, sleep, and shit. Capitalism already ravaged this city once, and it could soon happen again.

The specter of gentrification leaves struggling musicians and artists with few options but to try out movement politics: to advocate for themselves and each other. That could mean playing shows for canvassers at the end of a long weekend’s work, or getting involved in local activism or electoral politics. And that looming sense of urgency might be why Worcester saw the highest levels of Sanders canvassing in Massachusetts in the final days leading up to Super Tuesday. This was announced to the Electric Haze crowd at 8:30 PM, by none other than actress Susan Sarandon, who stepped on stage after a month of touring with the Sanders campaign and organizing bonanzas (she recently swung through several cities in the Carolinas.)

“Bernie Sanders supporters in the Worcester area knocked on more doors than anywhere else in this state,” Sarandon said, to riotous applause later adding: “This umbrella is so big that we can bring in people who’ve never even been political before.”

Moments later, Sarandon was taking pictures with people in the audience, and MessiahCarey (also known as Shane Hall) had set up his MIDI synths for a solo set; “My DJ couldn’t be here tonight because he’s working fucking 80 hours a week to feed his family,” he said.

Despite all the speeches about justice policies and canvassing, I couldn’t help noticing that this show still didn’t feel like a campaign event. It felt like a party, in the most natural and rambunctious sense. You don’t get a group of musicians and artists like this under one roof by doing normal politics. You get it by embracing the irreverence and weirdness of art, in its unadulterated form—an approach that, at the end of the day, is pretty on-brand for Bernie Sanders, who worked as a carpenter in his 20s and once helped open a youth center in Burlington that evolved into a destination for punk bands like Fugazi.

This is how you bring more people into politics. Not just the millions of economically vulnerable voters who’ve been sold out too many times by megadonor-fueled lawmakers, but also musicians and artists who might otherwise choose to stay out of politics: especially in places like Worcester that are ignored by Democratic Party bigwigs who spend most of their time in Boston, one of the most unequal cities in America. Plus, one of the upsides of bringing more people into politics is that it makes politics weirder, rowdier, and fun. That last part, according to Shapiro, is not to be overlooked.

“I think my ethos with organizing this Berniepalooza show comes down to something that Emma Goldman once said,” he told me. “‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.'”



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