You may or may not have watched grime artist Stormzy light up the coveted BRIT Awards stage the other night. While he scooped two gongs, that wasn’t what he made headlines for the morning after. In the closing act, he intertwined his single with a freestyle rap, slamming UK prime minister Theresa May. It was in no uncertain terms for the Conservative government’s handling of the Grenfell disaster, which saw 71 people killed. The rapper has made no secret of his political allegiance in the past year, openly acting as an influencer for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during his election campaign.
Is popular culture – in its increasingly fragmented forms – still a good way to get your political message across? Instead of releasing a manifesto, should you publish an Instagram picture with the celebrity of the moment acting as though you’re best pals? Is what people say about you now far more impactful than what you have to say?
Spoiler alert: probably yes.
But hasn’t it always been the case that celebrities and use an event as a great platform for a political statement? It’s an instant way of hijacking a particular moment in the media’s spotlight – and getting access to what all PR gurus and marketers are after. Attention.
And the award for Best politically charged speech goes to…
For those in the public eye, it’s not uncommon, to use their voice as a vessel for cultural issues. In 1973 Marlon Brando rejected his invitation to the Oscars, sending Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. She refused to accept Brando’s award on the grounds of the negative portrayal of Native Americans in the film industry at that time, and instead launched into a speech on the subject.
At that time, her politically motivated statement sparked outrage, with some booing her on stage while others were horrified at the attack on the academy. Either way, it’s unlikely anyone would have aligned with either Brando or Littlefeather on the issue. Even the Academy themselves responded by banning recipients from sending proxies to accept awards on their behalf. The hijacking of the academy award was a great way to spread awareness, certainly grabbed the attention of those sitting at home. This comes after a turbulent time politically where the USA were at polar opposites hence the optimum time to hit home a complex subject.
As we enter the 2000s, award ceremonies became littered with a political undertone. In 2009 Dustin Lance Black scooped an award and dedicated his speech to those affected by the ban on gay and lesbian couples marrying in church passed that same year. No one could forget, Leo DiCaprio’s long-awaited Oscar win, yet his speech on climate change bewildered his critics. Meryl Streep ruffled the most important of feathers with her 2017 Golden Globes monologue, in which she pointed out the diverse heritage of some of her esteemed colleagues in the room, stating that:
if you get rid of us, you won’t have anything left to watch apart from Football
A statement clearly directed at the President of the United States, the thorn in the side of Hollywood since his inauguration. So stirring was Streep’s comments, Trump himself retaliated by calling the actress overrated (maturity levels on point.) Meryl was met with tears of happiness, rounds of applause and an overwhelming outpouring of support on social media for her Golden Globes Trump bashing.
At the Grammy’s this year, Oprah Winfrey delivered such empowering rhetoric that an actual presidential propaganda campaign ensued, with famous figures and members of the public alike calling for #Oprah2020.
Grime 4 Corbyn
In 2017, UK Grime artists like JME, Stormzy and AJ Tracey stepped out in support of labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. During his election campaign, prominent stars of the grime movement praised Corbyn and his policies in a string of social posts, videos and public appearances. While we didn’t see the ultimate end goal of the election come to fruition, the impact on the credibility and popularity of the party was and still is overwhelming.
The number of youth voters registered to vote increased from 137,400 in 2015 to 250,000. With 58% of grime fans voting Labour in the 2017 election. Even now, in 2018, Corbyn’s Instagram feed is littered with images of popular celebs from George Ezra to rapper MIA and DJ Rudimental. He graced the cover of GQ in January, joined the stage at Glastonbury and frequently engages with valuable influencers on social media. Meanwhile, flick over to our current Prime Minister’s Instagram and you’ll see no such popular culture littered feed. Perhaps it’s always been the privilege of the political left to be able to embrace musicians’ – and their fans’ – audiences. (Cool Brittania anyone?), but if the quest for attention it’s a valid channel.
Hollywood becomes its very own PR campaign
With the culture of Hollywood is slowly exposed to the outside world, it seems those at the heart are taking full advantage of the subsequent reactive campaigns. Movements like ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Me Too’ swept this year’s award season, with prominent names using the microphone as a platform to discuss women’s equality, the gender pay gap and sexual abuse within broader industries. The BRIT awards followed suit this week, handing roses to the women of the red carpet as a symbol of their solidarity towards the campaign. With all of those in (overt) support, receiving extra press attention.
What has happened here, however, is something quite rare. The politics itself has transcended an event. There is a movement in popular culture, and the celebrities are second-fiddle for once – they’re not making single protests, they’re caught up in something far greater than themselves.
What can marketers learn from this?
All the above brings these major issues to the forefront of public attention, and whatever the ulterior motives may be, that is no mean feat. Jeremy Corbyn and his influencer marketing endeavours have seen the most significant surge in youth voters in years, and whether they’re voting Labour or not, they’re engaged in something they previously felt no passion towards.
We live in strange times. It’s an era where the Queen is sitting front row at London Fashion Week, New Balance customers burn trainers after the brand supports Trump, and the world’s glitterati don all black in solidarity at the most prestigious award ceremonies going.
Influence takes many different forms, but as we can see, everyone – from politics to PR-hacks – want to get their statements where people are paying most attention.