Is it a popular artist’s responsibility to speak out about important issues?
That’s the question that was posed to us last Sunday at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. As part of Oxfam America’s presence at the festival, I had the pleasure of being a panelist at a discussion about the intersection of activism and music. The panel took place on the Solar Stage, an earth-friendly performance area.
The panelist to my right happened to be Will Sheff from Okkervil River, a band I admire greatly. Before the panel, Sheff and I killed a little time in the “Green Room” tent adjacent to the stage by talking about his band’s efforts to “green” their own tours and to encourage fans to ride bikes to their gigs to slash gig-related carbon footprints. Sheff mentioned that they didn’t start those initiatives because of any particular movement or campaign, but rather because they personally just felt that the by-products of touring were wasteful. (Performer Ben Sollee may be one of the few musicians to complete a full tour on a bike, when he pedaled 330 miles to Bonnaroo with his cello.)
That’s why I wasn’t surprised to hear Sheff’s response to the panel’s question. He said, in essence: “I don’t think it’s an artist’s responsibility to do the right thing; I think it’s a human’s responsibility to do the right thing.” Who could argue with that?
Personal responsibilities seemed to be the theme of the four-day event in Planet Roo, the area of the festival set up for environmental and humanitarian organizations to reach out to music fans. Activists spoke passionately about oceanic pollution, mountaintop removal coal-mining, home vegetable growing, domestic deforestation, and human rights issues of all sorts.
Oxfam America’s outreach team of ten–including staffers and volunteers–worked along those same lines. We called on people attending the festival to speak out on behalf of poor people in the US and abroad by signing a petition that calls on Congress to help poor communities adapt to the devastating effects of climate change.
By festival’s end, our team gathered about 2,700 new signatures, an admirable number considering the torrential downpours that hit us periodically throughout the weekend. It helped, too, that a number of music artists at the festival were supporters of Oxfam, including Ben Sollee, Wilco, St. Vincent, and Coheed & Cambria.
But rather than looking at that number as just 2,700 signatures or 2,700 music fans, I prefer to see it as something else: 2,700 people following–as Will Sheff from Okkervil River suggested–a human’s responsibility to do the right thing.