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Spotify on political resistance: ‘You have to choose what side of history you want to be on’


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When Spotify launched its ‘I’m With The Banned’ campaign in July 2017, it was a surprising sign that the music-streaming service was willing to take political stands – in this case, against the Trump administration’s efforts to introduce a travel ban covering six predominantly-Muslim countries.

Spotify’s chief marketing officer Seth Farbman hosted a panel at the Cannes Lions conference this afternoon, titled ‘Creativity in the Age of Resistance’, which included two of the musicians who’d collaborated as part of that project: Yemeni artist Methal Hamadi and American artist Sam Harris. Paola Mendoza, co-founder of The Soze Agency, moderated.

“When art and social justice intersect, what is created there, I believe, is what can create change,” said Mendoza by way of introduction.

Farbman talked about Spotify’s reasons for launching I’m With The Banned, although he didn’t mention President Trump by name. “Six countries, predominantly Muslim countries, people were no longer free to come in to the US,” he said. “This was a moving story: we were unsure really where we were. But that Monday when I returned to the office, it was all the conversation. The question we kept getting was ‘what were we going to do about it?'” he said.

“When art, and artists no longer can cross borders, it’s not simply the artists who suffer, it’s us. The quality of our culture is not as strong, and that’s really a measure of your country, in the world.”

Spotify used its own data to identify six musicians from the six banned countries, and paired each of them up with an American musician. “Let’s show what collaboration looks like. Let’s show what cultural connection looks like,” he said. The collaborations took place in Toronto – on account of half the musicians being banned from entering the US – in June 2017.

“I believe that the role of artists and art ultimately is to tap into our hearts. What I think is happening in theh United States but also around the world, is we are experiencing a mass contraction of the heart. And I feel artists play such an important role… they can expand people’s hearts and build compassion, as opposed to building walls,” added Mendoza.

Harris said he was enthusiastic as soon as he heard Hamadi’s music. “I was just as outraged as a lot of us were when I heard that the ban was being implemented. And definitely felt compelled to do whatever I could. This was such a perfect marriage of what I think I’m pretty good at – writing music and playing music – and then also doing something to create awareness, and to promote something positive,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for me, really.”

Hamadi’s career has a much longer arc of music as resistance. She started playing music as a child, but took it seriously when she moved to Yemen’s capital city aged 19. “Since I’m a girl, I wasn’t even allowed to think about the idea of studying music or even playing music in general. So I kept learning through YouTube tutorials in Yemen, and once the revolution happened I went out: there were a lot of artists that played in the square. That gave me courage, and a lot of artists in different fields the courage, to show their artistic expression,” she said. “There were a lot of people who wanted change at that time, and there were no restrictions about it.”

After the revolution in Yemen, she was once again prevented from playing music “as a lot of religious people came in”, so she left the country in 2015, ultimately settling in Canada.

She gave her views on the role of artists in the current times. “These times, I think it’s to try to focus on issues that are really important… By making their voices heard by a lot of people, that makes a lot of change,” she said. “With what is happening now in the US politically, I’ve seen so many artists talking about politics, which I think is very important. That’s how change is made.”

Harris talked about his own artistic decisions over whether to speak out or not to speak out, with Mendoza asking whether art is “a mirror or a hammer” in these contexts.

“I have never felt that I had any other choice other than to be politically active,” he said. “I feel that it’s everyone’s responsibility to try and take care of each other and fight for equal opportunities and equal rights in this world. It shouldn’t even be a thing that we have to bring up at all, but unfortunately it is. There’s never a hesitation for anyone in my band on speaking out politically, or trying to create awareness and get people involved in politics on a local and national level.”

As for whether art is a hammer or a mirror. “It’s a little bit of both. What was so amazing about I’m With The Banned is this is a project all about inclusivity and intersectionality. That’s what the mirror is. Good art should reflect what this world is, and this world is not just straight white men. A lot of the music industry is!… But it’s our job in this day and age to make this as inclusive a world as possible. I think that’s our duty. And in that sense, choosing to actively do that, to actively involve everyone, not just one group of people? That’s a hammer.”

Farbman was asked about how Spotify decides when to ‘be political’. “I wouldn’t even say it was political, first of all. Sure, politics play a role in setting agendas, but this is really about what kind of society we want to have,” he said. “Artists have always and will always and should always both reflect what is happening, but also hold our collective feet to the fire. Are we building something that’s more powerful for all?.. Are we moving empathy to the forefront for all of us? That’s what art does, especially music,” he said.

Farbman also said that it’s an “obligation” for Spotify, as a platform between artists and fans, to support this. “It becomes an easy set of decisions as a company, and certainly a brand. Where if you stand for inclusivity and if you stand for the ability of those to raise their voice, the intention will carry you through. Not everybody likes everybody’s opinion, but we fundamentally believe that allowing that opinion to be free, just as we believe in allowing artists to travel freely, really supersedes everything else.”

Mendoza asked Hamadi about the discussion about women in the music industry: not just in the west, but how she’s taken her experiences from her home country to Canada.

” I’m not really focused on sexism. I’m more motivated by, if I face a lot of obstacles based on my gender, I feel like I’m obligated to do it either way… My goal is to try as much as I can to keep doing it, no matter what,” she said.

Harris gave his views on the Trump administration’s new immigration policy, separating children from their parents at the US border. He recommended an organisation called Raices Texas, which is collecting donations for a legal fund, and to post bonds for families separated at the border. “They start at a minimum at $1,500 and usually are between $5,000 and $10,000 per family,” he said.

“That’s just one of many, and as a band we’ve been lucky to work with Planned Parenthood a little bit: we put on a benefit show for them around the Women’s March… and I was lucky also to be at the Women’s March with my fiancée and my mom… And we’ve done some work for the ACLU. I think right now, what’s happening at our borders? It’s just despicable, and very very frustrating to see this happening in my country.”

Farbman talked about “a moment in our collective global culture where you have to be bolder, and you have to choose what side of history you want to be on, and then you have to use your skills – which we all have as storytellers – to employ change. No more excuses.”

“The biggest political moves that you could make in this entertainment industry, again, is to be inclusive and to bring new voices in to the fray,” continued Harris. “We want to hear everyone’s story. That’s the most politically-active thing for us all collectively to do: to encourage each other to be inclusive, and to have everyone’s voice be heard.”

Farbman was asked about how Spotify uses its data in choices like I’m With The Banned: can it tell whether there’s a backlash from some of its audience, or strong support from others?

“Our audience is already incredibly diverse, very culturally connected – obviously music is a pathway to experience culture and each other. And generally speaking people who are into music are also interested in learning, they’re interested in progress, they’re interested in others,’ he said.

“We really didn’t get a lot of backlash from I’m With The Banned. What you have to be careful of: not to make political statements as in ‘I’m on this side’ or ‘I’m on that side’. But [rather make] statements about what you think a better-looking world is like. And that comes for us from more art, and from providing a platform for artists…”

“When it’s as obvious as that, and you have the security of knowing that this is artists and fans, and our job is to sort-of get out of the way, you don’t have to ponder so much on what is right and what is wrong. Because the core proposition, you know is right. Giving a voice to people is right. And so far that’s served us pretty well.”

Stuart Dredge

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