Presidential Candidate Cornel West Hosts Music Industry Roundtable at Carver Museum

Sentimental talk invites Bill Callahan and Alphabet Workers Union

Cornel West at the George Washington Carver Museum on April 16 (Photo by Carys Anderson)

Philosopher and independent presidential candidate Cornel West rolled into Austin Tuesday to campaign for a unique voting bloc’s support: working musicians.

The socialist figure threw a “Rally for Truth, Justice, & Love” at Hotel Vegas, then headed to the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center to participate in a roundtable on the state of the music industry.

Nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians organized the discussion. Moderated by the organization’s Advocacy & Education Manager Sarah Hall, the roundtable pulled together musicians and community leaders – including Ray Price, who serves on the organization’s board of directors and heads the free, youth-oriented Notes for Notes recording studio; Courtney Santana, singer and CEO of domestic violence resource Survive2Thrive; Pedro Carvalho, owner of the Far Out Lounge and a member of the Music Commission; and Sharon Mays, chief of staff for Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison.

West – who announced running mate/Black Lives Matter activist Melina Abdullah last week – enlisted Bill Callahan to open the event with a few songs, then addressed the crowd of about 100 by himself. A longtime public figure who’s taught Ivy League classes on philosophy and theology, West has issued three albums under his own name and collaborated with the likes of Bootsy Collins, Prince, and André 3000. In his opening remarks, he spoke more like a preacher than a political candidate, waxing poetic about the “indescribable phenomenon called music.”

(l-r) Pedro Carvalho, Courtney Santana, Cornel West, Sharon Mays, Ray Price, Sarah Hall (Photo by Carys Anderson)

“You see, music is not ornamental and decorative. It’s constitutive of who I am,” West said. “[It] preserves my sanity and dignity.” Name dropping blues artists like Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington, the 70-year-old tied his musings back to his areas of expertise – issues of race, gender, and class – by highlighting the genre’s origins as a mode of Black expression.

As his third-party campaign remains a long shot, West’s Austin appearance felt more like an opportunity for emotional connection than a presentation of practical answers. His abstract musings on artists providing tenderness in an era of commodification inspired the kind of affirmative mumbles – “that’s right,” “mmhmm” – that you’d hear in a Black church sermon. As his fellow panelists joined him on stage, he stood up and hugged them one by one.

Settling into discussion of the state of the music industry and how to improve it, West let the local speakers do most of the talking. They landed quickly on affordability as the biggest issue plaguing working musicians, but didn’t agree on a solution. Mays emphasized the importance of educating musicians about the business side of the industry. “Who’s the next C3?” she asked, referencing C3 Presents, the ACL Fest-running, locally launched production company.

Carvalho, shaking his head, spoke for independent venues when he shot back, “I hope there is not ever another C3, if possible.” The commissioner went on to critique the Live Music Fund, arguing that the city’s grant program provides inadequate funding and creates a “very divisive atmosphere” within the local music scene.

When asked about the federal government’s role in protecting musicians from AI and corporate exploitation, West offered few specific answers. He did suggest government subsidization of the arts, pointing to costly programs launched in South Korea and France, and proclaiming, “Every federal budget is a moral document.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Austin Texas Musicians welcomed two members of the Alphabet Workers Union, launched by Google contractors, to speak with West. Recounting an incident from last month, when the entire union was laid off from Google subsidiary Cognizant while activists were in the middle of speaking in front of City Council, organizer Katie-Marie Marschner asked West how the government could better protect labor organizers.

Recognizing the union from the viral video, West engulfed Marschner in a hug. As far as government protection? West said even oversight organizations like the National Labor Relations Board grow “captive” to corporate elites, and offered instead: “All you have left is insurgency. All you have left is fighting. All you have left is hitting the streets. All you have left is going to jail. And all you have left is your grandmama’s prayers.”

Hard to imagine a White House win for anyone who suggests insurgency, though raucous applause reminded: It’s happened before.

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