From Prophets of Rage to Kid Rock: a musical revolution at the RNC

Musicians from all parts of the political spectrum converged on Cleveland this week to play, and perhaps change some minds but was anyone really listening?

On Sunday night, on the banks of the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland, on the eve of one of the most potentially volatile political events in recent history, $500 bids were being placed on framed, unsigned photos of Americas Tang-hued presidential candidate. State delegates walked by giggling, taking pictures of the different Trumpian items, including one that featured an If Hillary cant satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America? plaque. Johnny Van Zant, lead singer of southern rock collective Lynyrd Skynyrd, was on stage in the distance, adding color commentary. I am here to testify to you, he said, with gusto, that we are real, real, real big supporters of our troops and their families. Without them folks wed be nowhere, so God bless them for their sacrifices.

Here among the pleated khakis and button-downs, the Infowars shirts and the elephant embroidered shorts, was a concert and silent auction that served as the unofficial kickoff to the 2016 Republican national convention, one that pinballed between non-partisan military endeavor and ra-ra political acquiescence. Conventions are ideal locations to raise money, particularly if the cause youre stumping for is based on something as uniform and uncontroversial as supporting veterans. That the money that was being collected for military charities was further perpetuating D-list Hillary Clinton sex jokes, and spreading the legacy of a band who proudly flew a Confederate flag for decades, was of little concern to those in attendance as was Van Zants enthusiastic presidential endorsement.

Mr Donald Trump can get us united again, he said to applause. I hope you guys believe the same thing. Donald Trump uniting our ass. How bout it? He says how it is folks. He says what everybody wants to think.

Somewhere, Scott Baio was blasting A Simple Man.

Johnny Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd stumps for Trump in Cleveland. Photograph: Angelo Merendino/Getty Images
Musicians have played an increasingly outsized role in both political discourse and non-partisan causes for decades. Though how much influence they actually have on the electorate is up for debate. Surely in 2016, a foul year marked by violence, death and divisiveness, a group like Skynyrd is not going to sway your feelings on who to vote for president. If youre unironically shouting for Free Bird at a concert even if the band on stage happens to be the one who wrote the song in the first place theres a 99% chance youre already voting for Trump anyway.

But forget the top of the ticket. What about the artists asking people to donate to a universal cause, or to vote for a local politician? That was certainly within the cards for the weeks motley crew of artists performing at events all over the city: there was Rick Springfield and Martina McBride, Third Eye Blind and Kid Rock, the Roots and Blues Traveler, all hoping to spread whatever message they believed in a potentially futile attempt to not get drowned out by all the hoopla happening inside the RNCs security perimeter.

A message of humanity and resistance

If anyone could cut through the noise, though, it was Prophets of Rage. The day after Skynyrds Last Stand, Chuck D, the candid and energetic frontman of Public Enemy, marched west on Payne Street, while dozens of armored bike cops dressed like Master Chief from Halo kept pace behind him.

This was the second half of the days Prophets Make America Rage Again plan. A musical amalgam of the bands Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy, the group debuted at the end of May in the hopes of confronting the mountain of election year bullshit as guitarist Tom Morello put it to Rolling Stone. They also announced the start of a world tour, which would kick off at the Republican convention.

When we formed, this was item one on our agenda, said Morello, after the group performed an abbreviated surprise seven-song set in a drab field on the east side of town. It was important to come and confront the racism, misogyny and imperialism that is happening inside the RNC, with a message of humanity and resistance on the streets of Cleveland.

Prophets of Rage in full flow at the RNC. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Rage has a long history of political shit-stirring, most notably in 2000 at the DNC in Los Angeles, where their concert devolved into a messy mosh pit of riots and teargas. Granted, in an election season where one candidate had already bragged about the size of his penis on national television, it seemed unlikely that, short of them starting world war three, Morello and company could syphon off any noticeable media attention. Anyhow, getting a series of shows set up in the first place was already a big enough task as is.

Finding a venue where we were allowed to play was not easy, added Morello, as he marched alongside the Industrial Workers of the World, periodically stopping to greet well-wishers and supporters. We frankly did this under false auspices today. It was not known that Prophets of Rage were going to play. We were called, like, the Patriot Freedom Band or something like that.

The band had attached themselves to an event that was already being thrown by the End Poverty Now initiative, where groups like the Revolutionary Communist party, Code Pink and Black Lives Matter all gathered around to voice their support for the issue at hand, while simultaneously promoting their own singular causes.

Personally, I am not really drawn by the music, I am drawn by the message, said Matt Meister, a member of Industrial Workers of the World, later adding, We are marching today in solidarity against the insane poverty in the region and how that poverty is exacerbated by the policies of both political parties but especially the Republicans.

Indeed, this multicultural crowd was no friend to either side of the aisle. Throughout the day, I spotted posters of Trump dressed as Hitler and Bernie For President signs, and heard chants about the treasonous sell-out Hillary Clinton. Folks wore DESTROY CORPORATE GREED and SMASH THE POLICE STATE T-shirts. But things never reached critical mass. Rage events used to draw tens of thousands, yet the events here in Cleveland felt a bit sparse.

I was expecting this to be a lot more chaotic, said Nicole Clayman. Her husband, Dave, agreed he was shocked he even found a parking space. Cleveland, he said, does seem to be keeping the peace. That 1:1 ratio of protesters to cops was easy to spot. Once people began marching downtown after the pop-up show, a squadron of police officers formed a protective enclosure around the group.

The problem with some of the previous [Rage convention] performances was we announced it too far in advance and the police shut us down or it gave the opportunity for more conflict, said Morello, on why the band opted for last-minute announcements. But this was the strategy. We wanted to represent, we wanted to play. We have friends, fans of the media here who can broadcast what happens with our megaphone.

Activists with Code Pink protest against Donald Trump and corporations before a Prophets of Rage pop-up concert. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

But for some during the week, those megaphones were closer to whispers. Take the Keep the Promise event, held a few hours before the Skynyrd show on Sunday, which was billed as a forum for advocates to publicly call on Republicans on the day before the opening of the RNC to articulate clear domestic and global policies on HIV/Aids. Considering the platform the GOP had already adopted, that was unlikely to happen. But the speakers and performers on the lineup the Roots, Soledad OBrien, Cornel West, Mary Mary, and, uh, BOB were hoping to get as much mileage out of the message as they could, despite the fact that they were missing a key component: people.

The event had either been announced last minute or the organizers had done a poor job marketing it. The entire benefit played more like a soundcheck to an arena that was 90% empty. Anyway, its tough to compete for music-friendly press when bands like Third Eye Blind were playing pranks a few days later on unsuspecting Republicans.

By then it was Thursday morning, and the Prophets of Rage train had reached the end of the line. Their second pop-up show, this one at Public Square, was attended by a few dozen stragglers and about double that number in journalists. It was almost a polar opposite the following night, when the band performed a more typical rock show at the rundown Agora Ballroom. As opposed to the all-inclusive crowd at the march on Monday, the crowd for the evening was about 95% middle-aged white dudes in cargo shorts. Prophets of Rage, Cleveland! yelled Chuck D. Say it like you mean it, fuck what happened at Quicken Loans Arena, lets take this power back. The roar of the crowd was deafening. A giant, sweaty mosh pit formed at the front of the stage. Whether you were there to toss back some beers and shout, or raise your fist in solidarity against corporate America seemed to matter little to the band. Just getting people out to the concert was good enough.

Kid Rock in Cleveland: TRUUUUMP. Photograph: Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

Wed prefer that theyd be there for both, but theres always going to be people who are not necessarily politically motivated, said B Real. Sometimes you win those people over, once theyve had a chance to absorb it and think about what they might have said and what songs were played and what they mean to right now. You never know if you win them over to be proactive and get them involved in the process.

The quote brought to mind something that West, a speaker at the Keep the Promise event on Sunday, had mentioned. I think that the great artists, he told me, no matter what color, nation or sexual orientation, are those who dig deep within themselves and lay bare the truths that affect each and every one of our own souls, like John Coltrane and one would hope that that kind of artistic expression would spill over into the political arena.

Considering the lack of GOP-friendly musicians these days, fans tend to associate those truths with more left-leaning causes. But then, they probably werent at the Kid Rock concert on the final night of the convention, where Republican delegates and conservative wonks came dressed in Trump garb, smiling and reveling after their nominees 77-minute acceptance speech. There were Make America Great Again hats in red white and blue, American flag jackets, and Trump 2016 buttons. All the women in the audience looked like Ivanka Trump.

Like the Skynyrd show, it was another event couched in military paraphernalia, but was more truthfully used as the final gavel on a hectic and predictably unpredictable week in Cleveland. Who yall voting for out there? asked Kid Rock, as the crowd yelled back with an enthusiastic TRUUUUMP. Thats right. As Kid Rock I have to say we gotta make this motherfucker great again. Music and the arts had spent the last five days being continuously bent and contorted by dozens of performers for their own ends. Whether anyone present was being swayed to a new point of view, remained to be seen.

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