The lineup of artists scheduled to perform at this week’s inauguration events continues to shift amid backlash from fans. Broadway legend Jennifer Holliday has been out since Saturday. On Monday, the B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen cover group, canceled their appearance at the Garden State Presidential Inaugural Gala, which had been scheduled since 2013. Tuesday, after mulling over their invitation for nearly a month, the Beach Boys reportedly accepted and were announced as headliners of Thursday night’s Texas State Society ball. The list of artists who publicly declined to take part in President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, or who are actively opposing the event, is long and star-studded. On Thursday night, Common and the National will play an anti-inauguration concert organized by Planned Parenthood and All Access.
The fluid relationship between art and politics has always attracted controversy, but the firestorm over who will and will not perform at the inauguration has forced some entertainers to declare their political alliances — and raised some uncomfortable questions about policing artists. Over the weekend, at a literary protest aimed at protecting democracy in the wake of Trump’s election, I was reminded of Pete Seeger’s historic testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The folk singer was hauled in front of the committee on suspicion of communist activities, based on his alleged performances at various protest events.
“I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers,” he told the tribunal, which was ultimately responsible for the blacklisting of hundreds of performers and writers.
Many called before the HUAC refused to answer questions about their political activities, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but Seeger declined that option. Throughout his testimony, he maintained that the questioning was an “improper” violation of his fundamental democratic freedoms, namely his First Amendment rights. “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion,” Seeger said to his interrogator, “and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.”
Seeger’s story deserves particular reverence this week. His words are a testament to both the power of democracy and the courage required to defend it. It is easy for a liberal supporter of the arts, like me, to champion the performers who have boycotted Trump’s inauguration. More difficult is the task of standing up for the artistic freedoms of those with whom I do not agree. But recalling Seeger’s stoic defense of his right to perform whatever, wherever and for whomever, I’ve found myself facing that task.
Consider the overtly threatening rhetoric targeting 16-year-old Jackie Evancho, the soloist slated to sing the national anthem. Evancho, who first earned recognition on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” has been the recipient of a strange blend of bullying. Her older sister, Juliet, is transgender; amid transphobic taunts from some of her classmates, Evancho told the New York Times, she also contends with harassment from strangers online who protest her participation in Trump’s inauguration by calling her a traitor. Perhaps naively, considering the divisive nature of the current political climate, Evancho claims her message is one of unity. “I hope to just kind of make everyone forget about rivals and politics for a second and just think about America and the pretty song that I’m singing,” she told CBS News in an interview.
Unification was also Holliday’s motivation for initially accepting Trump’s invitation to perform. The Broadway veteran allegedly received a mixture of death threats and heartbroken pleas to reconsider after her name was announced in the inauguration-day lineup. In an open letter released on the Wrap, Holliday apologized for what she called her lapse in judgment and said, “I was honestly just thinking that I wanted my voice to be a healing and unifying force for hope through music to help our deeply polarized country.”
While I find the notion of a healing, nonpartisan artistic statement at an event celebrating Trump’s presidency to be foolishly idealistic, I’m also acutely aware of my responsibility to defend its right to exist. Protecting democracy cannot be conditional. Whether the threat to free artistic expression comes in the form of organized McCarthyism or an anonymous Twitter egg spewing hateful speech, it is the responsibility of conscientious citizens of our diverse, pluralistic society to speak out. Always, not just when doing so aligns with our own ideologies. Without that commitment, our core democratic principles are at stake.
That doesn’t mean we all must download albums by Evancho, or that we can’t boycott her music, or that we shouldn’t voice our disapproval of her choice of performance venue (note that Holliday’s publicist has said it was the earnest appeals from fans, not the death threats, that prompted the singer to withdraw from the inauguration program). But it does mean that those of us working in the name of democracy must defend Evancho, and any artist, against the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that threatens free aesthetic expression.
Seeger was said to have been “obsessed with curing social ills through music.” Were he alive to witness Trump’s ascension to the White House, he’d probably be among the president-elect’s most vocal detractors, but it’s hard to believe that he’d ever waiver in his defense of an artist’s right to perform free from threat. Especially now, especially when it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient, his message is one we cannot afford to forget.