Building on the legacy of activist entertainers such as Paul Robeson, Eartha Kitt and Harry Belafonte, here are five ways movements for justice and famous supporters can partner to promote change.
By Paul Engler
(Published in Waging Nonviolence.)
Today there exist significant numbers of celebrities with progressive politics and a desire to support movements for social justice. These people bring unique resources to the table, including the capability to activate new bases and access new sources of power. Given the immense cultural power of celebrities in our society, and the degree to which artists of all kinds skew progressive, one would think that this would be a great advantage for progressive movements.
And yet, something seems to be missing. Why don’t social movements get more traction from their association with celebrities who are willing to move from being mere spokespeople for charity into positions of genuine solidarity?
Addressing this issue requires action on both sides of the equation: Movements need to think more carefully about why and how they might collaborate with celebrity allies to advance their work; and, for their part, well-known artists and musicians who want to support change must invest in building the relationships that facilitate long-term engagement.
On the movement side, organizers are often averse to thinking about celebrity power for a variety of reasons. Grassroots groups are based on the idea of organizing ordinary people, giving voice to the voiceless, and coming together to collectively lift up those without fancy connections or insider influence. Feeding into a culture of celebrity is antithetical to this orientation. Even if they wanted to enlist well-known supporters, most groups have little to no access to rarified celebrity circles. Moreover, movements based on people power take pride in distinguishing themselves from glitzy, star-powered charities that exist to raise money for feel-good causes but do not take on structural issues of corporate power, racism or patriarchy.
All of these concerns are valid. But there is good reason for movement leaders to take a second look at the issue, and for organizers to consider whether the influence afforded to celebrities can be used in the service of social and economic justice.
Since the early days of Hollywood, studio executives have understood that stars possess extraordinary charisma and ability to attract a devoted following. The market is adept at learning how to commodify celebrity to affect consumer behavior, using endorsements and the allure of association with fame to build brand identities and sell products. This influence has only grown in the past decade with the rise of social media. Today’s celebrities are no longer just distant, idealized figures whose public identities are carefully controlled by corporate managers. Instead, they now have a two-way relationship with their public that is historically unique.
Social media platforms allow them to influence behavior and markets by communicating directly with fans, and by inspiring large numbers of fans to communicate with one other. More easily than ever, bands, artists, and “influencers” are able to create new social bases and to affect the behavior of these bases. Compared with how the commercial mainstream has deployed celebrities to advance its interests, the potential power that celebrities might lend to social movements has barely been tapped.
Celebrities are often not asked to show up for movements, because grassroots groups lack the relationships and capacities to make these requests. Still, the willingness among actors, artists and musicians is often there. Organizers should recognize that many performers come from creative subcultures which are generally progressive and bohemian, or from countercultures that celebrate non-market values.
Conservatives are well aware that creative communities tend to be aligned against them, which is why they blast those actors, artists, athletes and musicians who dare to speak out on social and political issues — except in the relatively rare cases when celebrities support the right, and then are eagerly embraced (for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dr. Oz, Kanye West or Donald Trump). Learning from these adversaries, progressive social movements should think creatively about how to leverage the advantage that prominent supporters can provide.
If the previously mentioned issues represent hurdles for movements to overcome, there are two key challenges on the celebrity side. First, well-known entertainers are surrounded by handlers and associates who in most cases do not want them to spend their social capital helping movements, because it does not increase the bottom line for everyone who is getting a cut of their profits. Yet many celebrities manage to work around that, hiring teams who are aligned with their political and social values. The second problem is that there has not been enough strategic thinking on the real nature of celebrity power and how those with it can most effectively help make social change. As a step toward addressing this, it is worth mapping out some key opportunities for collaboration.
* * * * *
Five opportunities for action
Among prominent entertainers, there are already a variety of individuals who are well known as progressive activists — think Tom Morello, Jane Fonda, Talib Kweli, or Mark Ruffalo — and who are making significant contributions to social justice causes. There is much to be learned from their examples. And yet, we must recognize that they are the exception to the rule.
While a great number of celebrities aim to somehow “give back” to the community, their default actions involve charity and social service that is generally apolitical in nature. Not many celebrities speak loudly on social justice. Among those who try to take stands on social media, show up at benefits, wear branded clothing in public, or mention social justice issues in interviews, most are only loosely connected with organized movements — if they are linked at all. Because their actions are not part of coordinated movement strategies, their actions have limited consequence.
Actors, artists, athletes and musicians who want to maximize their impact — as well as the movements that want to join with them in using celebrity power to advance campaigns for social justice — have a variety of intriguing options for how to remedy this lack of coordination and devise effective action. Five areas they can explore in developing more creative and impactful interventions are:
1. Making better political endorsements
One common form of celebrity engagement involves entertainers making endorsements of individual candidates for elected office. This form of action is tied to what is sometimes called the “monolithic view of power.” A mainstream understanding of history, which is widely reinforced in the American media, teaches that change comes about through the actions of a small number of powerful individuals — senators and generals, presidents and CEOs who hold positions of great consequence.
The best way to affect change, in this view, is to lobby those in charge and urge them toward a personal epiphany. Following this model, celebrities are enlisted to use their access and nudge the positions of prominent individuals in the right direction. Or, in the case of electoral campaigns, famous friends are used to bolster the credibility and glamor of monolithic leaders, who are meant to “do the right thing” once in office.
Social movements look at the process of change in a different way, and therefore possess a different vision of how to best take action. In contrast to the monolithic view of power, the social view of power understands that those in positions of authority are dependent upon the cooperation and support of the governed. It recognizes that the major egalitarian changes of the past century have come about through popular mobilization — through organized people confronting the power of organized money.
Accordingly, movement activists emphasize how the combined efforts of grassroots organizations and disruptive protest can set the terms of debate and compel authorities to respond in ways they would not otherwise. While it is true that politicians sometimes change their minds in ways that lead to progress, evidence suggests that they are more often followers than leaders. Their views typically “evolve” only after a shift in public opinion alters the political calculus of what stance might advance their political careers. It is social movements that are decisive in prompting such shifts.
Those who are armed with a social view of power will approach their activism differently — and this extends into how they look at making political endorsements. If an endorsement is merely tied to the advancement of a single, monolithic candidate who is meant to enact changes once elected, the impact of these endorsements is limited. We know all too well that candidates who profess social justice values commonly do not live up to those ideals when they are in office. How then, can we develop better criteria for choosing endorsements, so that they have the greatest impact in propelling movement causes?
Celebrities should aim to support electoral interventions that attempt to bring social power into the realm of mainstream politics. To this end, they can look to social justice organizations for guidance as to which candidates have listened to them and committed to processes to govern in the best interest of their communities. They can focus in particular on supporting the campaigns of “movement candidates” that come from the ranks of these organizations rather than through conventional party channels.
They can publicize their partnership with grassroots groups, signaling that politicians who want their support need to seek approval from movement and social justice organizations. And if celebrities are meeting the candidates, they can bring leaders from these movements with them to further drive home this point. Celebrities can also encourage their followers to give donations to these organizations in connection with an appeal to vote for a candidate. These actions are a way of transferring some of the celebrity’s power to organizations representing people on the ground, thereby boosting their efforts.
Electoral campaigns oriented toward building social power have several distinctive traits: They champion politicians that attempt to realign local, state or national party structures to be more responsive to poor and working-class constituencies. They seek to leave behind organizational infrastructure after the end of a particular political cycle. And they focus on volunteer organizing and field mobilization, rather than just expensive ad buys. Celebrities that look for these qualities and grant endorsements based on them have the ability to contribute to important electoral upheavals, rather than being just another famous name shaking hands with a potential senator or president.
2. Amplifying trigger events
Occasionally a highly publicized event — whether a political scandal, natural disaster, viral footage or shocking incident — captures the public spotlight and shines attention on an unresolved social problem. These incidents, known to social movement scholars as “trigger events,” can draw people with no prior interest or experience in politics into mass protests. They create periods of intense consciousness-raising in which new bases of potential allies emerge and become ripe for politicization. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 was one such recent trigger, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was another — prompting the expansive Women’s March the day after his inauguration.
Trigger events provide organic opportunities for engagement and mobilization. In each of the previously mentioned cases, the protests featured participation from many celebrity supporters, which helped to increase overall turnout. That said, more should be done to realize the full potential of the whirlwind moments that can emerge in the wake of prominent trigger events.
On the celebrity side, there are several things that famous supporters can do: For one, they can try to intervene earlier, so that nascent protests have a better chance of reaching a critical mass. Second, beyond showing up themselves, they should try to actively mobilize their fans and get them involved. (Musicians inviting their followers to join them for impromptu performances in Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street was an example of this type of contribution.) Finally, it is helpful if celebrities take steps to integrate their actions with the efforts of an organization, so that the loose ties that are temporarily organized in the wake of a trigger event can be absorbed into more lasting structures — whether through something as simple as a mailing list or as robust as a mass training program that provides an onramp for new recruits into future activism.
On the movement side, it is crucial for organizers to learn how to harness the spontaneous responses of well-known supporters in order to make them deeper and more sustainable. And it is also important to think ahead and develop relationships in advance. Although some public crises are truly unpredictable, we know that other types of triggers are likely to recur — whether the rolling back of previously won rights, a natural disaster prompted by climate change, a graphic video of police abuses, or gross impropriety from an elected official. Knowing that these are uniquely powerful moments in terms of shaping public opinion, movements can work to anticipate future triggers and plan how to maximize their potential.
3. Boosting organizing campaigns
Separate from spontaneous trigger events, there are occasional strikes and demonstrations that benefit from gaining public attention. Structure-based organizations such as unions and community groups generally focus on organizing their core constituencies, and they are often not concerned with reaching out beyond that. However, there are times when these groups arrive at key points in their campaigns and need to make their case to wider audiences. At these pivotal junctures, celebrity power can be very important.
It can be difficult to convince the media or outside participants to take interest in a local protest or workplace picket line. Having a star with a large following show up to such an event can make a world of difference, with a celebrity potentially drawing hundreds or even thousands of people and widely increasing the popular appeal of an action. In these cases, the presence of a famous person can do much to elevate other speakers — including movement leaders and other voices from the grassroots.
Some celebrities already make these sorts of appearances, but this type of involvement could be greatly ramped up. This would involve both celebrities and movement organizations investing in developing the types of relationships that make this possible. One challenge here is that social movement organizations often do not know how to reach out or where to market their events in order to draw attention from those outside of their base. Some of the most powerful examples of mobilizing “outside of structure,” as this type of outreach might be called, have come when celebrities themselves help create and publicize an event, with input from movement leaders. The involvement of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch in creating the Tibetan Freedom Concert in the late 1990s serves as just one example. It is important to note that celebrities need not — and often should not — present themselves as issue experts or spokespeople for a cause; their role, instead, is to use their platform to legitimize and amplify frontline leaders that may otherwise be ignored.
4. Shifting the Overton Window
The Overton Window refers to the range of public policy positions considered “acceptable” to politicians who want to stay in power. Stances outside of this window are typically marginalized and considered “out of bounds.” The window shows what is seen as politically possible in a given moment; at the same time, the view it offers is not permanently fixed. Changes in public opinion — whether initiated by historical events, gradual cultural shifts, or active agitation — can move it.
Celebrities typically lend their support to causes that are already popular. But the potential for impact is greater when they lend their support to causes and movements that exist outside of current norms, and thereby work to expand the bounds of public acceptance. Celebrities coming out, standing up for LGBTQ rights, or supporting activism around AIDS in the 1980s helped those causes to gain more widespread acceptance. At a time when bigotry was rampant and ingrained public taboos surrounded these issues, these actions contributed to shifting the window of possible political responses.
Today, for example, forward-thinking celebrities can help raise awareness of ideas such as restorative justice as an alternative to our broken criminal justice system. By supporting non-mainstream causes that align with their values, they can help pry open the artificially narrow window of debate. Understanding this strategy and joining with groups that are consciously trying to move ideas from the fringes into the mainstream of political discussion allows celebrities to be a part of long-term transformations in public attitudes.
5. Fueling boycotts
Celebrities have enormous untapped power to influence consumer behavior. This power can be used to supercharge boycott campaigns aiming to put pressure on corporations.
Historically, left movements have been more inclined to focus on production (through strikes and other workplace actions), rather than consumption (through actions such as consumer boycotts). As a result, boycott strategies remain seriously underdeveloped, even as the potential power of the tactic has grown. In recent decades, strike power has declined due to factors including globalization, changing patterns of corporate ownership, and unfavorable labor law; and yet, the ability to turn consumers against a company and to inflict serious “brand damage” has in many ways expanded, with social media providing an important assist. The creation in the early 2000s of the Business Ethics Network — an effort to enhance the strategic sophistication of anti-corporate campaigns — was a promising development. But it was also a short-lived one, and conversations in that network revealed that the field was still in its infancy.
Today, there are only a handful of people in progressive circles capable of running large, sophisticated brand campaigns. There is now enormous potential for such campaigns to wield celebrity power more effectively, but the right relationships are not yet in place to make this possible.
It can be extremely powerful when a celebrity suggests that their fans boycott a particular organization. For example, when musician Harry Styles urged fans to boycott SeaWorld in 2015, groups such as PETA amplified his remarks and the company’s reputation took a major hit. Some even claimed that the stock price of the company collapsed after Styles’ remarks. The support of Rage Against the Machine was important to the success of a 1997 anti-sweatshop campaign that targeted the clothing maker Guess. As Hillary Horn, then spokeswoman for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE, explained at the time, the band’s involvement had “been a boost to the campaign because Guess has been trying to market their clothes to the same type of people who listen to their music.”
Notwithstanding these examples, this kind of celebrity power is massively under-used. Brands have done a far better job of harnessing celebrity power to burnish their reputations and maximize their profits than organizers have of using the same power to take on exploitative companies. Partly, this is because movement organizations with limited capacity are not asking celebrities to do enough. Expanding the ability to collaborate with well-known supporters should be a part of the effort to increase boycott capabilities more generally. For their part, celebrities should recognize that boycotts work much better when they are collectively organized efforts, rather than framed as expressions of individual preferences. Dogging a brand is far more powerful when followers can be pointed to groups that are organizing around corporate abuses and have a strategy in place to win concrete concessions.
* * * * *
How are celebrities organized into activism?
Actors, artists, athletes and musicians developing relationships with movements is an important first step in exploring these avenues for engagement. Another key step is when celebrities organize one another.
In his book “When Movements Anchor Parties,” political scientist Daniel Schlozmann emphasizes the historic importance of “brokers” or bridge figures who could mediate between social movements and political parties. These individuals, who have one foot in the world of social movement activism and one foot in the party structures of mainstream politics, have played a critical role in serving as an interface between the two worlds.
A similar argument might be made about the importance of bridge figures who historically have been vital in connecting activists and celebrities. Some of these figures have been well-known entertainers themselves: For example, Paul Robeson, Eartha Kitt, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte were among those who played important roles in the civil rights movement, just as performers including Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Jane Fonda were prominent figures in anti-Vietnam War activism. In the 1980s, Martin Sheen was an outspoken supporter of the Central American Solidarity movement, while Danny Glover and Bruce Springsteen bandmate Steven Van Zandt became leaders in organizing artists against South African apartheid.
There are countless other examples, of course, of celebrities taking political stances. But the distinction between a bridge figure and a star who might occasionally speak out on an issue is that bridge figures maintain long-standing commitments, cultivate connections with grassroots organizations and leaders, see themselves as accountable to a movement base, and — crucially — persuade their peers to participate in activist causes.
A celebrity who wants to grow into the role of being a bridge figure first needs to seek out opportunities to deeply learn about issues alongside movement organizers who are working intensively on them. They should ask questions about the structural impediments to change, as well as how they can use their power and access to help remove those blocks.
In addition, progressive organizers and movements need to start thinking about how to cultivate more bridge figures and create the kind of long-term relationships that can serve as pipelines for future engagement among new generations of artists and entertainers. It is important that the consultants who sometimes facilitate relationships between artists and social causes are not people who have a monolithic view of power, but instead that more brokers emerge from community organizations that are thinking about using celebrity power in creative ways.
In the social media era, organizers have only barely begun to think about the prospective ability of celebrities to widen the reach of social movements. And even celebrities wishing to support social justice causes frequently have little idea of how they can use their prominence and influence to elevate grassroots voices. Nevertheless, the possibilities for partnership — and the models of past artists who have moved from charity to solidarity — are potent enough that they should not be ignored.
Research assistance for this article provided by Raina Lipsitz. Photo credit: Ted Eytan / Flickr.