When celebrity influence becomes political divisiveness

Illustration by Myah Anglin | The Signal

In May, George Floyd’s murder spurred weeks of protests in Atlanta and throughout the nation. To appeal to the protestors, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms invited rappers Killer Mike and T.I. to a press conference. The speakers passionately urged the Black Lives Matter activists to maintain peace and go home immediately because Atlanta “must be protected.”

“It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy,” Killer Mike said.

After the press conference, many activists felt unheard by Mayor Bottoms, sparking a fierce debate about the city’s use of celebrity influence to address public concern. 

Bianca Acha-Morfaw is a Georgia State senior and the secretary of the Young Democrats at GSU. She was frustrated by the city’s assumption that the speakers would sway Black demonstrators simply because they were Black and famous.

“To me, it just shows, with the shooting of [Rayshard Brooks] a couple [of] weeks later, that representation does not equal equality,” Acha-Morfaw said. “Yeah, we have a Black mayor. Yeah, you have two Black celebrities telling us that Atlanta’s different. And then it’s not different.”

Killer Mike recently sat down with Gov. Brian Kemp to discuss COVID-19 and human trafficking within the state. Some locals criticize the rapper because they see the collaboration as unproductive or validating the conservative governor’s past and current actions.

Junior Timi Jafojo, the chairman of College Republicans at Georgia State, was not surprised by the backlash that Killer Mike faced. He thinks that people are often quick to criticize celebrities for associating with conservatives.

“Killer Mike is more of a moderate or independent because he doesn’t like gun control,” Jafojo said. “I think he likes bipartisan work and wants to help people.”

Acha-Morfaw thinks the meeting was more productive and authentic than the press conference with Mayor Bottoms, but it meant little in terms of actual change.

“I think [Killer Mike] is doing what any activist would do, which is to create communication between the aisles,” she said. “But with [a pandemic] this prevalent, it takes a little more than communication, especially when we’re six months in.”

When it comes to major presidential campaigns, both today and in 2016, the focus on celebrity involvement and endorsements seems to be much more prevalent in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party. Some voters on both sides view the Democrats’ frequent collaboration with celebrities negatively.

Freshman Bella Philip is the campus coordinator for Sunrise at GSU, a new student group focused on engaging students in progressive politics and pushing for a Green New Deal. She thinks that the DNC’s emphasis on celebrity endorsements is misguided and overlooks the real barriers that discourage people from voting.

“When it comes to issues like the presidential race, celebrities often aren’t seen as dealing with the same issues as the rest of us,” she said. “So, what they have to say won’t change minds; it just serves as … reinforcement in our minds of the issue.”

Jafojo believes public figures should be free to voice their political opinion, but he warns it makes many of their followers disinterested.

“For Hillary Clinton’s campaign, they had celebrities play,” he said. “And it didn’t really help her out. I wouldn’t say people go to celebrities for their politics that much. They mainly go to them for entertainment.”

According to Philip, politically engaged celebs could create a more substantial impact by directing their influence toward causes other than voting.

“I’m not going to say that celebrities shouldn’t get involved in politics,” she said. “But I think it’s more effective when they bring visibility to issues that aren’t already obvious to everyone.”

The three student leaders see nothing wrong with public figures participating in political discussion. But they do think that both politicians and celebrities should make a more sincere effort to meet voters where they are.