Arts concert review

Vocals in concert with voting in the countdown to Election Day

This student-led lineup of performing arts and civic action will serenade you to the polls

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The organizing team of the Get Out the Vote Festival Sunday, which featured a host of talents and speakers.

Get Out the Vote Virtual Festival
Featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Joyce Wrice, Duckwrth, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, President L. Rafael Reif, and more
October 11

Sweeping and soothing, the Get Out the Vote Virtual Festival featured a talented coalition of artists and speakers who leveraged art “in concert” with civic action.

The event balanced its mission of voter turnout with aims like passing the mic to performers of color and savoring live artistic engagement. Though the interviews sometimes struggled to balance art and civic action, the overall festival was an ambitious array of artistic diversity under the aegis of increasing youth voter turnout.

With knockout musical performances from household names like cellist Yo-Yo Ma and emerging artists like Solstice Fayemz, the festival was a much-needed dose of live performing arts in the COVID-19 pandemic. Viewers ate it up. Attendees flooded the Zoom chat with positive commentary and posed detailed questions for interviews. One attendee dubbed the festival as the “best virtual event since quarantine started.”

The event’s ensemble format was engaging. Performers, public officials, and organizers conveyed a hopeful message of the power of youth voices and urged students to translate their voice into their votes.This broad coalition evoked the wide array of speakers at the Democratic National Convention. The event’s message resembled that of the new anthology All We Can Save, which strives to aid readers in maintaining hope and taking action in response to climate change.

The musical talent featured tracks from Bren Joy’s genre-defying album Twenties and Joyce Wrice’s multilingual single “That’s On You.” The majority of musicians identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. From Yo-Yo Ma’s acclaimed cello solos to Brandon Banks’ genre-defying R&B, these artists demonstrated the creative richness that emerges when artists of color take center stage.

These performers made a convincing case for youth-led civic action. Before her rendition of John Williams’ main score for Schindler’s List (1993), violinist and human rights advocate Mariela Shaker shared her story of seeking U.S. asylum to persuade attendees to protect their democratic rights. Raye Zaragosa spun indie folk melodies that featured an incisive stance on climate change and the contradictions of the American Dream. HOAX’s bright riffs quickly reeled us in before they introduced personal stories that urged students to cast their ballots. That transition resembled Sarah Cooper’s DNC performance, where she slid from her lip-synced comedy to her own rarely-heard voice to encourage voter turnout. 

Though musicians captured audience attention, the interview segments suffered from whiplash between the event’s many aims. Interview moderators tried to connect voter participation, artistic development, and MIT student life in their questions. They were met with mixed success. In an interview with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla ’94 and Mayor of Cambridge Sumbul Siddiqui, moderators asked Secretary Padilla about ballot security before awkwardly shifting to solicit his advice for MIT students in the COVID-19 pandemic.

An interview with Duckwrth featured an uneasy balance between civic engagement and his artistic process. As avid fans of Duckwrth’s music, the moderators posed intriguing questions about his latest album but transitioned choppily to his motivations for voting. In response, Duckwrth indicated that he planned to vote yes on California Proposition 22, a controversial ballot initiative on the status of gig workers. By sharing his political position, his response veered from the event’s non-partisan aims. 

Despite the challenges of balancing its many goals, the festival evaded some difficulties attached to virtual performing arts. Streamed festivals have their limits. On-screen streams feel distant from the close-up vocals found in local coffeehouses and small compared to splashy affairs like Boston Calling. Yet the festival turned the virtual format into a feature, not a bug.

Though a few speakers forgot that they were muted or performers forgot that they were on camera, these technical twists proved endearing rather than distracting. They remind us that despite the physical distance, we’re still tied to each other’s ordinary, messy lives.

The virtual format invited us to connect with artists and performers on a closer level. Attendees got an intimate glimpse into Brandon Banks’ leafy home studio, Joyce Wrice’s sunlit space, and President L. Rafael Reif’s family photos. Secretary of State Padilla reached out to California students with a Zoom chat message that encouraged them to vote.

Some artists leveraged Zoom to showcase their sound in colorful ways. Couchsleepers’ eye-catching blue-red lighting accented their wistful indie sound and mimicked the effects available on local stages like the House of Blues. Dance groups found a silver lining in Zoom’s limitations. MIT Mirchi used Zoom’s gallery layout to choreograph gestures toward a center-screen banner that read VOTE. 

Solstice Fayemz, the stage name of Anjolaoluwa “Anj” Fayemi ’20, modeled how to connect with livestream audiences. From the get-go, Fayemz hyped his viewers to sing and rap key verses with him. He later grooved to a recorded applause track, which playfully ribbed his distance from his audience and earned Zoom claps from attendees afar. He harnessed rapid camera movement to capture his freestyle exploration of his space, which conveyed the kinetic energy that it’s easy to imagine him radiating in-person. The audience flooded the Zoom chat with emoji-laden appreciation.

Overall, the festival earned its keep as an immense labor of love. Event organizers exuded a clear bond with each other and represented student groups as diverse as the United States’ own communities of color. They formed an impressive lineup of art “in concert” with voting — all in a short and likely stressful time frame. This lineup offered a hopeful message of compassion and community in an unpredictable time.

Those involved in the festival should applaud themselves: Art “in concert” with voting models the blend of optimism and action that we need today.

Organizations behind the GOTV Fest include Undergraduate Association (the UA Committee on Public Affairs), MIT Asian American Initiative, Latino Cultural Center, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Chinese Students Club, and MITVote

The festival was produced with support from the MIT South Asian Association of Students and MIT Black Students Union.