Can South by South Lawn Survive Post-Obama?

Music Features South by South Lawn
Can South by South Lawn Survive Post-Obama?

On Oct. 3, President Barack Obama hosted the inaugural South by South Lawn, a brand-new “Festival of Ideas, Art, and Action,” meant to emulate Austin’s South by South West, taking place on the White House south lawn, and featuring musical performances, panel discussions, a student film festival, and even an appearance from A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio. Performers included stomp-clap pioneers the Lumineers, alt-R&B singer Gallant, Motown revivalists the Dap-Kings (sadly playing minus leader Sharon Jones, who was battling pneumonia), and rapper Common, who spoke to audiences and filmed an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Even the Stranger Things kids—who’ve been making the publicity rounds in support of their unmissable sci-fi Netflix drama—stopped by.

This is hardly the first time an acting President has invited music and pop cultural figures to spend time at the White House. In his eight years alone, Obama has welcomed soul titan Aretha Franklin, pop powerhouse Bruno Mars, blues-rock behemoths the Alabama Shakes, and even classic-rock dominion Mick Jagger, among many others. Just this past summer, in fact, Obama brought Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Busta Rhymes, Pusha T, Common (again), Janelle Monáe, Ludacris, Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, Wale, and DJ Khaled in to talk about the #MyBrothersKeeper initiative, which “address[es] persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” Add in his and Michelle’s famous friendship with pop supernovas Jay Z and Beyoncé and a predilection for compiling Spotify summer playlists, Obama may be one of the most music- and musician-friendly presidents the United States has seen in recent memory. (What did George W. Bush ever host on the south lawn? Tee ball tournaments)

If nothing else, the image of Obama eating peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches with the Stranger Things kids, swaying to the Dap-Kings and intelligently discussing the impact of global climate change with Leo DiCaprio is certainly comforting in the midst of our ongoing—and increasingly depressing season. But it begs the question: Can South by South Lawn—or any White House-hosted music, film and ideas festival—survive a Trump presidency? Or even a Clinton presidency?

Based on what we’ve seen so far from the Republican nominee (incoherent debate ramblings; incessant mind-changing; unapologetic xenophobic, racist and sexist campaign rhetoric), there should be little doubt that if Trump were to take office in January, any event boasting the tagline “ideas, art, and action” isn’t isn’t likely to take place at all. (Unless the “ideas” and “action” were centered around regressive thought storms like wall-building methods, tax evasion, or the racially discriminatory “benefits” of stop and frisk.) It’s equally hard to envision musicians clamoring to play at the White House under Trump—unless they’re Kid Rock. Or Ted Nugent. Or Trump’s unofficial partner in unwarranted, blatantly racist Twitter garbles, Azealia Banks. If anything, a Trump presidency would in all likelihood send the majority of musicians and actors running for the nearest exit. Or if you’re Justin Bieber, who was invited to play at the RNC this year, accepting Trump proximity may result in losing your longtime manager.

A Clinton presidency, on the other hand, would stand a much better chance of keeping a creativity-focused production like South by South Lawn going—if only to make it appear as though Clinton is keyed into the arts. Even if Clinton doesn’t take it upon herself to deep-dive into music the way Obama has, artists have no trouble throwing their weight behind her. According to the Guardian, the following openly support the Democratic candidate: In addition to a naked Katy Perry and Madonna, Hillary voters include high-profile names like Kanye West, Beyoncé, Pharrell, Christina Aguilera, Tony Bennett, Jon Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Cher, Kelly Clarkson, Ellie Goulding, Ice-T, Ja Rule, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Janelle Monáe, Morrissey, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Sting, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Usher, Stevie Wonder and more.

Were Clinton to take office, the live-music possibilities are bound to be as endless as the soon-to-be-previous administration’s (perhaps minus the Spotify playlists). Because it’s not so much that Clinton adores music; it’s more that musicians love her and everything for which her campaign stands: a socially aware agenda, a history of LGBT and women-focused activism—supporting climate-change solutions, and just generally being a strong proponent for diversity, tolerance and humanity.

Even if this all sounds like an exercise in choir-preaching (musicians tend to vote Democrat, blah, blah, surprise, surprise), it’s crucial to acknowledge the creative loss we’d face were a chronically negative force like Trump to take office—rather like public-school arts program budget cuts, but on a national scale. Clinton may not channel a cool dad like Obama or win over television audiences with a saxophone-and-shades routine like her husband in the ‘90s. She may not even be aware that greeting voters to “James Brown’s “I Feel Good; after beating pneumonia is a bit tone-deaf, as Brown himself died of pneumonia in 2006. But her unwavering commitment to what being a president means—as opposed to her dangerously divisive opponent—ought to be enough to keep inclusive, all-embracing events like South by South Lawn afloat.

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