The history of popular music is littered with political pontification. As far back as the Civil War, songs that detailed the observations and attitudes of the day made their way into the American musical canon. In the mid 20th century, those topics found a broader focus, beginning with Woody Guthrie and his tales of hard working Americans and transient immigrants that suffered and struggled against the hardships of the day. The late 1940s and ’50s paralleled the rise of protest singers, with groups like the Weavers and later, their mainstay Pete Seeger adding their voices to the fray. In the ’60s, the call to arms became ever more compelling, as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Peter, Paul and Mary imbued mainstream music with lyrics that rallied young people to action.
Bruce Springsteen; Jackson Brown; Tom Morello; and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young—especially Young—singled out injustice and the powers that be, even as other artists have joined in to protest and denounce the current administration.
Still, for all their preaching and pontification, relatively few artists have actually made the tenuous leap from performance to politics. Here is a list of some that did.
1. Kinky Friedman
Notable political activity: Candidate for Governor of Texas in 2006
Given his ongoing political incorrectness, Kinky Friedman would seem the least likely individual who would find success in the political arena. After all, naming his band the Texas Jewboys and touting signature songs like “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Ride ’Em Jewboy” and “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed” aren’t exactly the kind of things that are likely to win ardent admirers intent on avoiding abject offensiveness. Nevertheless, those that know Kinky realize that it’s in his nature to be irascible and outspoken, and even after 40 years, his wisecracking rhetoric remains an indelible part of his persona. His race for governor in 2006 netted him widespread recognition well beyond the state’s borders and his early support of gay marriage came before any such endorsement was offered from the major political parties. During the 2016 election, he was even divided on his preference for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, but he did say he had talked to his guitar-playing pal Jamie Johnson about putting their own ticket together. “I would run for president and he agreed to run for vice president,” he explained. “It would be the Kinky Johnson ticket.”
2. Sonny Bono
Notable political activity: U.S. Representative for California’s 44th District
Bono, once a starry-eyed singer/songwriter of considerable repute, epitomized the hippie ideal in the mid ’60s when he and Cher placed a string of songs onto the national hit parade, among them “I Got You Babe,” “Laugh At Me” and “The Beat Goes On.” An essential part of California’s Laurel Canyon scene, the two found continued commercial success when they launched their own network television show which they continued to host even after their divorce in the mid ’70s. His unlikely entry into politics—as a Republican no less—came when he was elected mayor of Palm Springs in 1988 and served four years. He was initially defeated in his quest to become a U.S. senator by a fellow Republican in the primaries, but was eventually elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, representing California’s 44th congressional district. There he championed a bill extending musicians’ copyright protection. Bono was killed in a ski accident in Lake Tahoe on January 5, 1998, and his wife Mary was then named to fill out the remainder of her husband’s term. She was subsequently elected seven more times to serve on her own.
3. John Hall
Notable political activity: U.S. Representative for New York’s 19th District
The former lead singer and songwriter of the band Orleans (“Still the One,” “Dance With Me,” et. al.) began his successful transition to politics when he was elected to the county legislature of Ulster County New York in 1989, before transitioning to the Saugerties, N.Y., Board of Education two years later, and eventually to the United States House of Representatives from New York’s 19th congressional district. He served from 2007 to 2011, the only Democrat to hold that office in nearly a century. During his tenure, he found himself on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (an apt choice given that his ’70s anthem “Power” served as a clarion call to protest the random use of nuclear energy), the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the House Veterans Affairs Committee, before eventually becoming chair of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, one of only three freshman representatives assigned the task. While on the committee, he was responsible for the passage of the Veterans Claims Modernization Act of 2008, later signed into law by President George W. Bush. Hall declined to seek reelection in 2010, citing the difficulty of raising campaign contributions. He subsequently rejoined his former musical colleagues and now plays in a revamped version of Orleans.
4. Youssou N’Dour
Notable political activity: Senegal Minister of Tourism; candidate for President
N’Dour is an undisputed icon and superstar in his native Senegal, but his music has propelled him to international prominence as well. Tapping into native African rhythms and instilling them with a populist sensibility, he’s kept company with the likes of Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Wyclef Jean, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Neheh Cherry, Branford Marsalis and dozens of others. As an affirmed activist, he organized a concert for Nelson Mandela in 1985, participated in the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour in 1988 and took part in three of the Live Aid concerts as part of an all-star line-up. Later, he worked with UNICEF before being appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. He also gave his support to the Canadian charity Artists Against Racism, and in 2012, his commitment to the cause inspired him to run for the presidency of Senegal, although a question about the authenticity of some of the signatures he collected for endorsements caused him to be disqualified. Nevertheless, the new president gave him a consolation prize when he appointed him Minister of Culture and Tourism, a precursor to a later post as Minister of Tourism.
5. Peter Garrett (Midnight Oil)
Notable political activity: Australian House of Representatives member; Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts; Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth
Given Midnight Oil’s issue-oriented music and activism, singer Peter Garrett’s entry into the political arena wasn’t all that surprising. Many of the Aussie’s efforts centered on issues of prime importance—military alliances, nuclear war, the environment, and the injustices inflicted on the country’s aborigine population. Despite their punks leanings, the band never advocated for total nihilism, offering positive alternatives instead. When Garrett left the band in 2002 to focus on his efforts with the Australian Conservation Foundation, it initiated a political career that led him to his role as the Labor Party’s candidate for the legislative seat representing the Sydney suburb of Kingsford Smith. Later, he became the party’s chief spokesperson on environmental issues. He was subsequently reelected in 2007, but his actions became more controversial as time went on, especially in light of any earlier stance. He advocated for the withdrawal of government funding for the Australian National Academy of Music, approval of a controversial plan to dredge Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay, and support for a major expansion of South Australia’s Beverley uranium mine. He was eventually demoted as Minister of the Environment after an energy-conservation effort became linked to a serious scandal. He was later appointed Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, although more recently he’s made a tentative return to music with Midnight Oil and his own solo endeavor.
6. Rubén Blades
Notable political activity: Panama Minister of Tourism; Candidate for President
A native of Panama and an eight-time Grammy Award winner,, Blades is a multitasking marvel. A singer, songwriter, actor, musician, and activist, he was popular enough to secure a recording contract with Elektra Records in the U.S. and widely hailed for his mix of salsa, Afro-Cuban, jazz and pop, not to mention his ability to integrate popular themes and protest into his music. His song “Patria” (“Motherland”) is considered by many of his fellow countrymen to be Panama’s de facto national anthem. It’s little wonder then that when he ran for the presidency of Panama he attracted nearly 20 percent of the popular vote. His efforts weren’t entirely in vain however; in September 2004, he was appointed minister of tourism and served a full five-year term.
7. Martha Reeves
Notable political activity:
City Council member
Who knew that the iconic singer who encouraged the masses to be dancing in the street would later lead the way by taking to the street and serving on the Detroit City Council from 2005 to 2009? The woman who famously sang “Nowhere To Run” did run and she currently serves on the board of the Detroit chapter of the SAG- AFTRA. In that capacity, she testified before Congress in 2007 to encourage passage of a bill that would increase wages and royalties for session singers and musicians. That same year, the full membership of AFTRA honored her efforts with national recognition. These days, she also serves on the board of SoundExchange, a non-profit organization that collects royalties for artists played on satellite and internet radio as well as other digital transmissions. Talk about a Heat Wave…
8. Dave Rowntree (Blur)
Notable political activity: Norfolk County (UK) Councillor; candidate for several offices
Dave Rowntree, drummer for the British band Blur, had his sights clearly set on government when he became councillor on the Norfolk County Council representing England’s Labour Party. When Blur took a break in 2006, he trained to become a solicitor and eventually took a job in the criminal division of Kingsley Napley, a firm of solicitors headquartered in central London. A staunch activist, he joined Labour in 2002 and was elevated to the party’s local leadership. He ran for a seat on the Westminister City Council and lost, and later for a seat from the Church Street district, but that bid failed as well. His losing streak continued when he ran unsuccessfully to represent the Cities of London and Westminister in the general election of 2010, and he was defeated again the following year when he vied for another local post as well. Undeterred, he still lends his name to other causes of concern—supporting the rights of internet users to free use of music and advocating against the death penalty. Indeed, politics can blur the issues at times.
9. Peter Wishart (Big Country)
Notable political activity: Scottish Member of Parliament
Although he no longer looks the part, Peter Wishart was once a keyboard player for the band Big Country and later for the popular Scottish rock group Runrig. Currently, he’s a member of the Scottish Parliament where he’s served since 2005. He also participates in the House of Commons and chairs the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. Before that, he was a party spokesperson. He now ranks as the longest serving Scottish National Party MP (Member of Parliament) and among the longest serving Scottish MPs in the House of Commons. Interestingly enough, to date he is also the only MP to have appeared on the popular British musical variety show, Top of the Pops.
10. Beto O’ Rourke
Notable political activity: U.S. Representative for Texas’s 16th District; candidate for U.S. Senate
Though something of a novice—at present he’s a first-time congressman from El Paso—his effort to unseat Texas senator Ted Cruz has brought him to national prominence. That’s helped his war chest as well—he’s raised more money than his opponent although he still lags behind in the polls. Regardless, it amounts to a new record for quarterly fundraising for a Senate campaign. While a certain percentage of the money likely comes from out of state, he’s refused all PAC money. And though Democrats are hoping O’Rourke wins his race, enabling them to help capture a majority in the Senate, it’s worth noting that conservative Texas hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S, senate in some 30 years. O’Rourke’s candidacy is even more unlikely considering the fact that he was a skateboarder and bassist in the band Foss, which also included Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who was later the singer in the bands At the Drive-In and Mars Volta. Now that’s a cool connection…