Streaming The Revolution
How artists like X Ambassadors, Downtown Boys, and Sheer Mag use playlists to get their messages to fans
In 2016, the anthemic alternative rock group X Ambassadors were invited by Spotify to participate in The Line Jump program, a video series in which fans are invited to hang out with their favorite artists. In their installment, the band and a handful of their fans hung out at a St. Louis center for disabled children, doing arts and crafts and playing their hit song "Renegades" together. That afternoon meant a lot to the band, as keyboard player Casey Harris is blind.
Sam Harris, Casey’s brother and the band's frontman, says working with The Line Jump helped them establish a working relationship with Spotify. So when they heard from their management that Spotify was looking to pair artists together for their "I’m with the banned” playlist initiative, they were eager to get involved. The program paired high-profile Western artists such as Pusha T and K.Flay with musicians from the countries impacted by President Trump's proposed travel ban, including Iranian DJ Kasra V and Syrian songwriter Moh Flow.
"There are people living in this country who are Muslim who are not extremists, who are not terrorists,” says Harris. “The travel ban is just an act of pure xenophobia and racism, and so we wanted to stand up against that."
X Ambassadors were paired with the Yemeni singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Methal for the reflective song “Cycles.” "It was really incredible to talk to her about her journey, and how she came to Canada,” Harris says. “She's going to Berklee College of Music next year. But when we recorded this, she wasn't allowed in the United States."
Methal, born Methal Hamadi, told the band about her experience escaping her home country by fleeing to Africa on an onion boat. "She told me she had death threats [for playing music publicly as a woman],” Harris says. "It was pretty extreme, but with the encouragement of her friends and her community there, she kept playing. And I'm so glad she did, because she's so talented."
Harris says they largely got positive feedback from their fans via social media. "A lot of our Muslim fans reached out to us and told us how much it meant to them, for us to write a song with Methal, and put it out in protest of the Muslim ban," he says.
"I'm with the Banned" is one of many content series on Spotify that take a stand on highly charged subjects. Additional pieces include the "No Moment For Silence” playlist, which was created in support of the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order and DREAMers, The Bathroom Bans playlist created to protest legislation against transgender Americans, and the 2 AM Pride playlist. And while not every artist can be included in these programs, plenty of policitized acts can still use the reach of Spotify, particularly the many multi-artist playlists meant to introduce music fans to new artists, to bring attention to the issues that are important to them.
Downtown Boys are a young rock group that blur the line between art and activism. The incendiary Rhode Island band, who released their Sub Pop debut Cost Of Living last year, have found an audience in part via streaming.
"It’s just been so freaking varied the way people find out about the band," says singer Victoria Ruiz. "Ultimately, a lot of kids use these services, [especially] if they live somewhere where there's not a cool record shop or you're not in a certain social group that's gonna turn you on to the music. So it's like we do meet people who are definitely not a part of the choir who really want us to continue doing what we're doing." She says streaming is one way Downtown Boys often reach listeners "who probably would have not otherwise read an article about a Chicana-fronted band with political music."
When she's not singing, Ruiz works with The Center for Popular Democracy to help defend DACA from repeal, among other efforts. Several members of the band and their families have been impacted by the "criminalization of immigrants," she says. "We don't have a ton of tools. Really, one of the only ones we do have is our show platform and the way that we put out our music. But we do have people wanting to talk to us about things beyond music, which I think we're really fortunate to have."
Philadelphia rabble-rousers Sheer Mag combine classic punk swagger and incisive, politically aware lyrics on last year's acclaimed album Need To Feel Your Love. Frontwoman Tina Halladay notes that "making playlists is an art for many people. Expressing a mood or idea through a playlist is challenging, so I'm sure it could be used as a tool to 'clue fans into issues,' but there are many other ways to do that as well."
Both Sheer Mag and Downtown Boys have been included on a slew of high-profile playlists, including Badass Women, Punk Unleashed, Garage Jams, Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women, Afropunk’s 10 Songs For the Resistance, and Feminist Punk. It’s an example of how streaming has made it easier to find political art, from Political Punk to Kamala Harris’s #resistance-themed playlist to the 1,000 Days, 1,000 Songs initiative to Make America Woke Again to Socialism Is Love to this unofficial-official Handmaid’s Tale companion playlist curated by the cast.
"I think the majority of our fans are fairly progressive, but that most people are drawn to our music because they like the way that it sounds," says Sheer Mag guitarist and songwriter Matt Palmer, whose political goals include securing a living wage of "at least $15 an hour," universal health care, and the abolishment of "the carceral state.” "I like the idea that it can be enjoyed without taking a deep dive into the lyrics, but that if they choose to do so, there’s something they can take away that isn’t present in most rock music."
Ruiz was recently arrested while protesting in Washington against the recent tax bill. "It's been so hard to feel good about anything. You come out with an album, you come out with a music video, and on the same day there's something absolutely unjust and awful happening in our government or in our community, or in another part of our lives, and it just feels like, 'Well, what do I even say?'" she says. "But I guess that's why you work so hard to be a part of a group of people that have this other channel where it's not about you personally, it's not about you individually, it's about something bigger."