One night last year, Nashville newcomer Devon Gilfillian blew the words to “What’s Going On.” During a show in which he had opened for Michael McDonald, he was called onstage to join the headliner for an impromptu version of Marvin Gaye’s classic protest song.
Gilfillian laughs at the memory. Botching the lyrics was inexcusable, he says: His dad, also a musician, was a big Marvin Gaye fan. “I knew it from my childhood,” says the singer, who grew up near Philadelphia. “I’ve got it in my bones.”
So when he saw some Nashville musicians performing at a Black Lives Matter protest following the police killing of George Floyd, he was inspired to master the song. The next time he attended a march, he brought his guitar and sang “What’s Going On” for the crowd. That led to a complete remake of Gaye’s album of the same name. Now available for presale, Gilfillian is making the most of the album’s social conscience: All proceeds will go to a Nashville nonprofit called the Equity Alliance, which advocates for communities of color and their voting rights.
Gilfillian, whose debut album, “Black Hole Rainbow,” came out earlier this year, is just one of scores of musicians who have committed themselves to voter education and mobilization leading up to the election next month. The upcoming vote, he says, “is the most important thing this year in everyone’s lives.”
On Sunday, the singer will take part in Voice Your Vote, a virtual benefit concert presented by Memphis songwriter Valerie June and the City Winery group of concert venues. Artists set to appear include Brittany Howard, Jon Batiste, Rhiannon Giddens, and Amythyst Kiah. Proceeds will go to Fair Fight, the political action committee founded by Stacey Abrams to combat voter suppression.
In early October HeadCount, an organization that uses music to encourage young people to participate in elections, produced a virtual event for registered voters that featured Fitz and the Tantrums, Jack Harlow, Rob Thomas, and JoJo, to name a few. A similar project, Lift Every Vote, is challenging musicians across the country to inspire people to cast their ballots by hosting performances leading up to Election Day.
Through Oct. 29, another Tennessee organization, Briteheart, is presenting nightly YouTube concerts filmed at the Caverns, an underground theater, with Langhorne Slim, John and Lilly Hiatt, and Gilfillian, among others.
More artists are weighing in with special releases and appearances. Snoop Dogg, for instance, wants you to drop off your ballot “like it’s hot”: The Democratic National Committee just unveiled a PSA soundtracked by his big 2004 hit. (The rapper says this will be his first time voting.) And Arcade Fire just released a new video for “I Give You Power,” their 2017 collaboration with Mavis Staples, who experienced the civil rights movement of the 1960s firsthand, to remind fans of their voter registration deadlines.
JoJo, the pop star who grew up in Foxborough, just released the single “The Change,” written by the power balladeer Diane Warren. JoJo is set to perform the song, the official anthem of the Biden/Harris ticket’s Get Out the Vote effort, on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” Oct 22.
JoJo, who is 29, says she didn’t think of herself as a “political” person until recently. "But so much of what I care about, the issues I’m passionate about, are actually political — the alliance with LGBTQ communities, my passion for racial equality and education, for the environment to be protected.
“If we all adopt the mentality that ‘my vote doesn’t count,’ that’s a mentality that can easily spread, like a virus.”
She says she’s honored to add her latest single to recent topical pop songs such as “Til It Happens to You,” a #MeToo ballad co-written by Warren and Lady Gaga, and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” which was often played at Hillary Clinton’s campaign events in 2016.
“I think 2020 has broken down any notion of playing things safe or staying silent,” she says.
A few weeks ago Gilfillian hosted his own event, “There’s an Election Going On,” with guests including Grace Potter, Jason Isbell, and Marcus King.
“Oh man, that was magical. I got to get all my favorite musicians in Nashville together. It was cool to have people who are all about the fight,” he says.
“The more young people we can get to vote, the more we’re gonna change the world. That’s the reality.”
For decades, the music industry has been encouraging the youth vote and enfranchisement for all. When the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote in 1971, the Beach Boys set up a registration table on tour and signed up thousands of new voters. In 1990 Madonna, wearing a red bikini and an American flag, launched the Rock the Vote campaign on MTV, a record-industry rejoinder to the censorship efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center.
Denise Kaufman, a co-founder of the Ace of Cups, one of the first all-female rock bands, thinks the political climate today is even bleaker than it was in 1968, when her band was establishing itself on the psychedelic San Francisco scene. As a teenager, Kaufman immersed herself in the Free Speech Movement on the University of California-Berkeley campus. She’s been an activist ever since.
“Even with the horrors of the ’60s, there was a sense that we would beat this — we would make progress,” she says. “There was much more of a sense of unity, equity, support and humanity.”
After Kaufman heard accusations about Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s efforts to undermine confidence in mail-in voting, she changed the words to “Please Mr. Postman”: “Deliver my ballot, I’ve got to be counted!” With her daughter and grandson, she taped a charming video of the song.
The Ace of Cups, who reunited in 2018 to release an album, were always political, even if it wasn’t apparent in their lyrics, Kaufman says. Her band recorded a cover of Keb' Mo’s “Put a Woman in Charge.” (“Old white men still run everything,” Kaufman says.)
Over the years, she’s been in and out of the music world. But Kaufman has never stopped pushing for justice and equality. “At every table,” she says, “there should be a multitude of voices.”
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.