No Platform: Coachella And The Economics Of Dissent

Following the money trail wherever it may lead...

Many regard the quiet lull between Christmas and New Year as an opportunity to relax, reflect, and recuperate, but for one maniacally messianic newspaper, the mission never stops.

And so it was that, on December 29th, the Daily Mail published a story under the headline: “Popular grime artists such as Stormzy are fueling the use of 'skunk' by treating cannabis as 'product placement' in their chart-topping songs, researcher warns”.

The report featured spurious, loosely sourced claims that grime lyrics were encouraging cannabis use among children – specifically, deliberately linking this coverage to the popularity of artists such as Stormzy and Kano, the former a favourite target of the hopped-up hate rag.

Not one to take an attack on his moral character lying down, Stormzy quickly fired off a tweet to his 1.1M followers, asking them to:

Another tweet pointed out that drug use has been a topic in popular music, much of it made by white artists, for decades. In doing so, he highlighted not only the paper’s obvious and long-standing racism (this is, after all, the tabloid that took its time deciding who were the good guys in World War II), but also raised a more urgent question: how far are we responsible for the actions and social impact of the platforms with which we associate ourselves?

There were some in the media who responded that blaming young, likely underpaid hacks for the editorial policies of their employers was unfair. That everyone has bills to pay, rent to make, and a career to advance. That capitalist structures demand ethical compromise. That not every writer at the Mail shares the paper’s politics.

Others disagreed; pointing out that the Mail was hardly the only place a young journalist could find work (I can attest to this). As with all rows that play out primarily on Twitter, though, the crowd eventually moved on.

But the question remained. How far should we be held accountable for the views and actions of our patrons? And now, the spotlight would turn on the artists themselves.

When the 2018 line-up for one of America’s biggest music festivals, Coachella, was announced on January 3rd, much of the initial discussion focussed on programming. With echoes of previous debates around Glastonbury (which many felt had racist undertones), some raged that bands had been pushed out of their god-given limelight by rappers and R&B stars. After all, they said, this was a music festival.

But soon, a genuinely troubling, more sinister story emerged. Reported by Complex and many, many more, it was revealed that Philip Anschutz, head of entertainment giant AEG, a subsidiary of The Anschutz Corporation, and the ultimate owner of Coachella, had spent the last year donating to a raft of far right, Republican causes.

In some ways, this was nothing new. His channelling of funds to politicians engaged in such noble struggles as the denial of rights to LGBTQ people, the advancement of catastrophic environmental destruction, the apocalyptic proliferation of automatic weapons among the American population and the racist de-legitimisation of Barack Obama’s US citizenship had already been exposed in the previous Coachella cycle.

At the time, in typical Trumpian style, Anschutz had dismissed his support of these causes as “fake news”, while claiming to have divested himself and his corporation from the relevant organisations and policy-makers the moment he (belatedly) discovered their views – despite those views being both prominent and part of the public record.

In fact, in 2012, Anschutz himself said: “I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don’t know that. But I do know this, that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.”

It’s impossible to know, of course, what special insight Anschutz is blessed with that allows him to tell another person’s nationality just by looking at them, but we might hazard a guess.

And, despite his claims to have now distanced himself from the extreme right of US politics, Spin reports that:

According to records retrieved from the Federal Election Commission and the website Open Secrets, the recipients of Anschutz’s 2017 political donations included $5,400 apiece to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO). Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) received $2,700, while Paul Ryan’s Prosperity Action PAC received an additional $5,000. Another $5,000 went to the conservative Comman Values PAC, which has supported candidates including Luther Strange, and Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, who memorably assaulted a reporter last May.

Yes, that's the Senator Cory Gardner who said he wouldn't pressure Donald Trump to fire staff linked to white supremacists. And yes, that’s the Paul Ryan who has dedicated his entire political career, with recent success, to reforming the tax code to ensure the country’s poorest see their benefits slashed, while the rich reap the rewards of huge cuts to corporation, estate and income tax. As has been pointed out by NBC and a host of other outlets, this will disproportionately punish already marginalised communities.

Which raises the question posed at the beginning of this essay: how far should we be held accountable for the views and actions of our patrons? Do headline Coachella acts such as Beyoncé – heralded for her apparently woke politics – St. Vincent, a feminist icon to many, and Eminem, who recently proclaimed that he was “drawing in the sand a line” between himself and supporters of Donald Trump (though, as Alexis Petridis pointed out in this excellent piece for the Guardian, the rapper has benefited from much of the same white male rage that brought Trump to power), have a responsibility to reject associations with figures like Anschutz?

After all, however indirectly, they are part of the profit generating machine that enables him to fund his pet hate causes. More immediately, as fans, how can we demand that they be more consistent?

One possible model can be found in campaigns run by groups such as Stop Funding Hate and Sleeping Giants, as well as grassroots social media organisation. It was the latter which saw stationary company Paperchase agree to end its business relationship with the Daily Mail, while Sleeping Giants – an anonymous network of online activists – has successfully eroded the advertising base of far right tribune Breitbart News.

By collectively holding our favourite musicians, as well as ourselves, responsible for the hateful politics of the platforms that we and they engage with and support, we won’t defeat bigotry altogether, but we can at least stop promoting it, and show – as a community of like-minded listeners, artists and citizens – exactly where we stand.

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Words: Alex McFadyen / @AlexMcF_

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