There’s always a risk for an artist who speaks out. Conservatives pointed out that Bryan Adams made his move to cancel in Mississippi immediately after returning from Egypt, a society with more repressive gender norms. Springsteen has surely lost some fans over the years because of his politics. After his Greensboro cancelation, Representative Mark Walker called the singer a “bully” and vowed to go to other shows instead. “We've got other artists coming soon — Def Leppard, Justin Bieber," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "I've never been a Bieber fan, but I might have to go.” (Walker, rather than Springsteen, may bear the brunt of this decision.)
Globally, the movement to get musicians to boycott Israel over its handling of conflict with the Palestinians has been larger and more politically charged. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has been perhaps the most vocal exponent of the movement, though composer Brian Eno and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio have also been involved. The musicians’ boycott is closely allied with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, movement, which opponents like my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg say goes beyond simple criticism of the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians and into active anti-Israel agitation. Among BDS opponents, opinions about whether the musicians are intentionally backing that view or are simply misguided seem to vary.
Waters and others argue that they are acting in the spirit of the artists’ boycott of Apartheid-era South Africa. Convened and backed by the United Nations, those efforts are remembered today as having played a prominent role in bringing about the fall of the nation’s white-supremacist government and the end of Apartheid. Even that effort was not without controversy at the time, though, and it illustrates the tension between the impulse to boycott and to engage. In 1985, Paul Simon flew to South Africa to record Graceland, the hit album that featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African musicians. The album defied the UN boycott, and Simon was pilloried. When he traveled to Johannesburg, he was met by protestors. Springsteen sideman Steven Van Zandt, who organized the anti-Apartheid Sun City project the same year, says that he was shown an assassination list compiled by the radical group AZAPO that had Simon “at the top of it.” Simon’s defense was simply that his music was not political. Ultimately, several high-profile South African musicians, including Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba, defended Simon, mostly getting him off the hook. From 2016, Simon’s record seems like a model of engagement, though he’s also been accused of cultural appropriation.
Jazz bands also played an important role in protesting Jim Crow laws in the South. Swing bands began to integrate slowly after 1935, when white clarinetist Benny Goodman created a trio with black pianist Teddy Wilson and white drummer Gene Krupa. In 1938, Goodman’s rival Artie Shaw added singer Billie Holiday to his band. The presence of Holiday, a black singer who would record the iconic civil-rights song “Strange Fruit” the following year ,was a source of tension for the band, as John Szwed wrote in a recent biography. In some places, venues wouldn’t allow Holiday to appear on posters or on stage with Shaw, who was a huge star at the time. Rather than accommodate their preferences, Shaw simply played elsewhere.
But sometimes they, too, found that engagement worked better than boycotting. When hotels and restaurants balked at serving or housing Holiday, the biggest and burliest members of Shaw’s band would simply escort her in, effectively integrating the joints.|