The ongoing debate about musicians and politics seems to divide into two camps: Those who believe artists have a responsibility to use their spotlight to promote causes they believe in and to speak up for those with no platform, and those who believe musicians should just shut up and play. When Taylor Swift recently decided to make her first explicitly political statement by encouraging fans to vote and announcing her own choices for candidates in Tennessee, she faced a torrent of responses — from folks grumbling “It’s about goddamn time” and hailing her as a one-woman game-changer to Mike Huckabee dismissing her influence “unless we allow 13 yr old [sic] girls to vote.” In Denver, Nathaniel Rateliff ruffled some feathers this month by organizing Not One More, a day-long event of workshops and panels on gun-violence prevention, culminating in a mini-festival headline by Rateliff and his band, the Night Sweats.
One could argue that making art and trying to make a living as an artist are inherently political activities. Perhaps this is always true, but especially in this era, when there is so much governmental rhetoric and action to respond to, and when decisions by the powers-that-be seem aimed at continually marginalizing historically marginalized groups while squeezing the middle and artistic classes into extinction.
Out here on the purple frontier, musicians rarely shy away from saying what they think. You can witness it at 45s Against 45!, the regular resistance-themed dance party at Syntax Physic Opera. You can feel it in the remnants of Denver’s DIY scene and at collective efforts like the Titwrench festival (which recently pledged to be back in Denver in 2019). You can hear it in the authentic verses of Fort Collins rapper Qbala, whose very existence, by virtue of being gender-non-conforming, is deemed political. You can see it in the number of musicians you run into at protests or rallying around organizations like Youth on Record and causes like affordable housing.
With elections coming up and politics in the air, here are ten Denver-area artists and bands, listed in alphabetical order, that are explicit in their political messaging or actions.
Allout Helter makes melodic hardcore with dual missions: to thrash and to thrash against fascism. Named Westword’s Best Political Band in 2017, Allout Helter features vocals and lyrics by Ross “Hostage” Swirling, who applies an urgency and serious civic-issues lens to the music. The band joined forces with other acts for last year’s Punk Against Trump, which raised money for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Off stage, Swirling stays vigilant, recently working to block shows in Denver by bands who have demonstrated violent misogyny and fascist leanings.
Cheap Perfume is a feminist punk outfit out of Colorado Springs whose messaging is as blunt as it is witty. The riffs are catchy, the drums intense, and vocals by Stephanie Byrne and guitarist Jane No are both playful and razor-sharp. On “Dogs Against Dog Hollerin’,” Byrne lures men closer with a reverse catcall before making her unequivocally feminist, anti-oppression point clear. On 2017 single “It’s Okay (To Punch Nazis),” they sing, “Our fear has made us gullible/A bully rose to take control” and “We’ve had to say a lot of stuff we thought was fucking obvious, like: YES, IT’S OKAY TO PUNCH NAZIS.”
Rock-rap group the Flobots have always baked social consciousness into its hip-hop with intellect, empathy and inclusivity. Even the band’s 2008 hit single, “Handlebars,” included lyrics critiquing American society’s obsession with military might, consumerism, oil and more, reaching a fever pitch in the final chorus, morphing from “I can ride my bike with no handlebars” to “I can end the planet in a holocaust.” Its members are also community organizers, showing up in the streets and at consciousness-raising meetings and events. But the Flobots project works best when music and activism co-exist seamlessly, whether it’s playing at Youth on Record’s tenth-anniversary concert, creating a new catalogue of protest music, or facilitating workshops so the songs can be used by groups around the world.
R&B artist Kid Astronaut is Jon Shockness, the former singer for Air Dubai, and a presence in local arts and activist communities. While his layered, experimental R&B may be listened to for a variety of non-political meanings, Shockness works off stage with anti-gentrification group DenverCAN. Woven into his work is a deep belief in community, reflected in his various projects with other local artists and the sense that “collaboration makes everyone stronger.”
The seven-piece funk band uses its platform to address social issues — while throwing a damn good party. Named Westword’s Best Latin Band in 2017, Los Mocochetes uses percussion, guitars, horns and multiple vocals and works in elements of Chicano rock. Its Spanish-language lyrics are politically minded, and songs like “¡Que Viva Revolución!" will keep you dancing right into the streets. Even the band’s name is a playful exhortation to change the status quo; according to multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Joshua Abeyta, the word is a combination of “machete” and “mocoso” (or "snot-nosed brat"). “It’s the idea that every tool can also be a weapon, and vice versa,” Abeyta explains. “Our music encourages mocosos to use machetes for good.”
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats may be known for their retro-soul party-starting, but Rateliff is now using his platform for political activism. He recently formed the nonprofit Marigold Foundation, and on October 13 held a rally and concert called Not One More, focused on gun-violence prevention. Though the seemingly partisan action drew some ire from fans, Rateliff says, “I’m not trying to write any political songs. But as far as what’s happening in our community, I think it’s important to try and change those things in the ways we can.”
Roka Hueka churns out danceable Latin ska, seemingly perfect for shaking up dance floors and even selling booze alongside a fun time. In fact, the band was approached to perform in a branded music video advertising alcohol but turned down the offer because the business funded conservative causes and promoted anti-immigrant politics. Clearly, somebody wasn’t paying attention to Roka Hueka’s lyrics, which reflect the lived experiences of its members — including frontman Andres Gonzalez, who grew up in Mexico — and tackles topics like immigration, racism, labor, police violence and more.
Wheelchair Sports Camp
Kalyn Heffernan, MC of Wheelchair Sports Camp, has long contended with the sociopolitical realities of life in her lyrics. Beyond her voice, she’s often put her body on the line at the vanguard of protests and political action, such as when she co-led the disability-rights group ADAPT’s sit-in at Senator Cory Gardner’s office in 2017. Now Heffernan is running for mayor of Denver, stating in her inaugural campaign video, “I don’t stand for criminalizing people for being alive, for being houseless, or born somewhere else, for being a young person of color or playing music on the 16th Street Mall.” Her platform is currently focused on accessible housing in the extremely rapid development of Denver, and she uses all her verbal skills, wit and diligence to make her case.
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A lot of bands rail about political themes — and the terrific throwback punk act Wild Lives is no exception. But the band's members don't just stop at singing about social issues. Flamboyant lead singer Hans Meyer is one of Colorado's preeminent immigration attorneys. When he's not leaping off amplifiers and tangling himself in mic cords, he's advocating in the courts for some of the most marginalized people living in the United States. Even from stage, Wild Lives uses shows as fundraisers for immigrant rights. Whether working his day job as a buttoned-down attorney or gigging as a maniacal singer, Meyer is a consummate performer in all he does, no matter what outfit he's wearing.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is still in his late teens, but the indigenous Aztec artist and activist gave a TED talk on climate change when he was just thirteen, spoke before the United Nations and filed suit against the U.S. federal government at age fifteen, and is the youth director of Boulder-based nonprofit Earth Guardians. He also makes message-driven hip-hop, recently releasing the album Break Free. He's embarking on a tour of mid-sized clubs across the country and will even perform at the 1STBANK Center in late October, opening for reggae bands SOJA and Iration.
Who are your favorite political bands in Denver? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.