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Rock The Vote: motivating young voters through art and music since 1990

Rock the Vote, the non-profit founded in 1990 by music industry veterans to counter an effort to censor pop song lyrics, is still rockin'. The organization hired former Bernie Sanders operative Luis Calderin to oversee marketing and has made its presence felt at both the GOP and Democratic conventions.

Early on, Rock the Vote delivered its message through PSAs like this one with Megadeath frontman Dave Mustaine:

During this year's Republican and Democratic conventions, Rock The Vote held events under the title "Truth to Power." At the RNC they did one day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In Philadelphia, they roganized three days of programming with installations from artists including Shepard Fairey and Keith Haring and music events featuring bands like The Black Eyed Peas.

Whether Rock the Vote has materially increased young voter registration and turnout is debatable.

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement reported that in 2000, ten years after the group's founding, 9 percent fewer young people voted in the presidential election than had eight years earlier. But the importance of the youth vote is not in debate: Mitt Romney would have won the 2008 election if he had simply split the youth vote with Barack Obama.

To talk about Rock the Vote’s history and its current iteration we reached Heather Smith and Luis Calderin. She’s the former President of Rock The Vote and is now a board member of the organization. He just joined Rock The Vote as Vice-President of Marketing and Creative, after leaving the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Interview Highlights:

We’re going to start with one of the earliest PSA’s from 1990 where Madonna — wearing a bikini — is flanked by two male dancers in short shorts. She’s got a Marilyn Monroe look going on and is wrapped in an American flag.

Smith: That video played on MTV, actually during "Yo! MTV Raps" to take us back. Young people watched it and they still remember it. I still remember it. That's how I first got registered to vote.

Calderin: Of course. I'm listening to that and I'm going back to when that came out. I was in high school and that had a huge impact on me. That video and MTV brought me in to the political landscape. Those PSAs coupled with the on-the-ground activation. I remember walking in Burlington, Vermont and the University of Vermont had a chapter set up with girls in the city hall park registering people to vote. They called me over and I saw the Rock The Vote banner. So I knew that because of MTV and the PSAs like Madonna's. It was really important at that time.

What is the modern 2016 equivalent of that for you, Luis? What are the kinds of thing you can do that can be the equivalent of what Madonna and MTV were doing back in 1990?

Calderin: In the early '90s, there was one channel where if you wanted to speak to young people, it was MTV. In 2016, there are hundreds of ways to communicate with and to young people. So is there one magic way to do it? No. The answer is no. It is about engaging all sorts of creatives, all sorts of musicians all sorts of DJs, producers, artists from the highest caliber of Hollywood film directors to kids making YouTube videos. I mean, a YouTube video can change the world.

Heather, would you still describe Rock The Vote as being nonpartisan?

Smith: Yeah. Nonpartisan in that we never have, and I expect never will, endorse or support a particular candidate or political party. Our mission is to engage and educate and motivate young people to go, this is what I believe and this is what I stand for, and to stand up and use their voice. So telling them what to believe or who to vote for is kind of counter to our mission.

But your description of the truth to power event says that it's intended to elevate and illuminate the most pressing issues facing young people in the U.S. today, many of which sound like they're taken from the Democratic platform. So if you were getting more people to register and turn out to support Donald Trump, is that part of your mission as well?

Smith: Those issues are important to young people. That is what's motivating them and what's going on in their lives. To me that's not Democratic or Republican. That is about the 48 million young people in this country and the issues that they're facing. It would be a dream if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton get out there on the campaign trail and start debating what they're going to do about these exact issues and who's going to best represent young people today. It is our vision and our hope that if young people engage and they get registered, if they start showing up, those issues have to get addressed. We would love to see all parties address it. If it happens to be that one party is doing a better job than another, that's on them. But we're going to keep showing up, keep registering people and keep pushing these issues until they are addressed and the lives of young people are taken seriously by those who we elect.

Luis, when you were working with Sen. Sanders and his campaign, the rapper Killer Mike got involved. What did that relationship teach you about what can happen when musicians get involved in the political process?

Calderin: Killer Mike on his own tweeted his endorsement or comment about the Senator. What I was able to do was sit with the Senator and say, there's a guy named Killer Mike who's very influential and a very intelligent person and he has said this about you online. Given the opportunity, we should try to connect with him.

You know, to say to a person who's running for president, there's a guy named Killer Mike and you should talk to him, seems sort of like a crazy thing to say. I was literally laughing out loud when I said it. What was really amazing about that campaign was the Senator's trust in people like myself and his willingness to have conversations with all sorts of folks. When we were able to put Killer Mike and the Senator together and have an open conversation around real issues and have a real talk around issues, that was one of my proudest moments. There was a camera crew there and they filmed it and put it out. The world was able to see two very intelligent men have a conversation about the future of this country. 

Heather, in 2014, Rock The Vote put out a video for the midterm elections called Turn Out For What? The Washington Post found out that some people in that video including Lena Dunham, Whoopi Goldberg, Natasha Lyonne hadn't bothered to vote in the previous midterm elections. How did rock the vote react to that and is it really not important that you're practicing what you preach and that people have actually voted before they do PSAs?

Smith: They voted in that election and I think that's — it was part of our story actually. We are trying to reach people who maybe didn't sign up with the college Democrats or the college Republicans, who weren't growing up going to political protests and who registered the first day they turned 18. We're actually trying to find those who are on the edges a little bit and explain to them and motivate them to get engaged. So finding spokespeople and influencers and artists who can go out and say, hey look I didn't vote either, but I care about this stuff and I now know why it matters. I'm coming out this year.

A lot of those artists in that video shared that message and it's the same one we'll keep talking about and we'll keep bringing in folks to say, hey you might not think this matters but these issues are being decided by those we elect. And they're going to pay attention to those who show up. That's how we're going to get 48% turnout to 50% turnout to 52% turnout. We're going to keep reaching those on the edges with these folks who speak to them directly and share that message about why it really matters and why speaking truth to power includes showing up on election day, November 2016.