Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

Eddie Van Halen donates guitars to public schools

Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art


Music That Makes a Difference 2018

In so many ways 2018 was a journey into uncertainty.

Around the world, old alliances and friendships were strained and divisive leaders rose up with a message of us against them.

It was a direct challenge to the idealistic post-WWII vision of countries coming together for a greater good.

But this was also the year when so many performers found their voice to call out the wrong, the immoral, and unjust — to put to music and into song the suffering and pain which otherwise may have gone unnoticed.

2018 saw a major comeback for the political protest song… and for the most part, the focus was just one man — U.S. President Donald Trump.

Artists Take on Trump

donald trump

President Trump began 2018 by calling some predominately black nations, “Shithole countries.”

Trump denied saying it but the comment set the tone for his stand on immigration.

The response from so many musicians was swift and harsh — calling Trump a racist, a xenophobe… reminding him that we’re all sons and daughters of immigrants and vowing never to forget what he said.

jay-z cn

Rapper Jay-Z told CNN, “Everyone feels anger but after the anger it’s real hurtful. Because its looking down at a whole population of people and it’s so misinformed because these places have beautiful people and beautiful everything. This is the leader of the free world speaking like this.

“On the other side, this has been going on. This is how people talk, this is how people talk behind closed doors.”

will.i.amBlack Eyed Peas frontman told CNN, “There’s shithole communities in America that need help and, likewise, around the world. But I’m an opportunist and my heart is in the right place.

“So I don’t like to get discouraged by division and skepticism without being an agent of change.”

joan baez

Folk singer Joan Baez has made a career out of protest songs. As she set out this year on her farewell tour, she had some harsh words for the guy she calls, “Nasty Man.”

“It’s a lot of evil,” Baez told CNN. “I won’t say somebody is evil but I can certainly say the results of 40 years of conservative think tanks have really brought us to where we are and I think Trump is just the pimple on the pumpkin.

“I don’t think they even bargained for getting anybody who is that ill. Because he really is ill.”

big mountain 1

Big Mountain, the reggae band who sang “Ooh Baby I Love Your Way,” doesn’t like anything about President Trump’s immigration plan.

The group released a song called “Deportation Nation” in 2018. It’s lyrics aimed at Trump’s threat to close the U.S./Mexico border as a caravan of Central American migrants slowly approached on foot.

“I’m appalled every day at some of the things that President Trump is using, some of the political ploys that he uses to get his base rallied up at the expense of human beings — people that are really suffering, people that really need help,” lead singer Quino McWhinney told CNN.

“The reason we did this song is to show solidarity with them.”

Legendary rapper Chuck D lashed out at Trump supporters tweeting, “Anyway you frame it, he is the king devil.”

Bruce Springsteen called Trump “damaged” and “dangerous at his core.”

But the president did have at least one big name supporter in the music industry… even though it was fleeting.

kanye trump

In October, Kanye West visited the White House, and during a rambling press conference in the oval office, he told reporters, “Trump is on his heroes journey, right now, and he might not have expected to have a crazy motherfucker like Kanye West run up and support, but best believe, we are gonna make America great.

“It was something about when I put this hat on… it made me feel like Superman.”

Trump tweeted, “Thank you to Kanye West and the fact that he is willing to tell the TRUTH. One new and great FACT – African American unemployment is the lowest ever recorded in the history of our Country. So honored by this. Thank you Kanye for your support. It is making a big difference!”

taylor insta

Taylor Swift, who has for years feuded with Kanye West, broke her political silence in 2018.

And it was no surprise that she railed against Trump backed candidates during the U.S. Midterm election.

She wrote, in part, on Instagram, “I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love.

Trump’s response, “Let’s say that I like Taylor’s music about 25% less now, OK.”

Jimmy Buffett and a host of artists put down their margaritas and picked up a mic to rally the vote.

John Legend told a campaign crowd in Ohio that “our democracy is at stake in this election. The government we have today does not reflect the will of the people. It does not reflect our values.”


Country superstar Willie Nelson headlined a rally for Democratic Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke where he debuted a politically charged song called, “Vote Em Out.”

If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ’em out
That’s what Election Day is all about
The biggest gun we’ve got
Is called “the ballot box”
So if you don’t like who’s in there, vote ’em out

In the end, Democrats won the House, Republicans increased their majority in the Senate — setting up a divided Congress for the next two years.

Photograph by Nathan David Kelly.

The division in the country left bluesman Charlie Musselwhite longing for better days.

“I just hope it’s a bump in the road and that people will wake up and we’ll get back to a civilized society where everybody treats each other like they’d like to be treated. The Golden Rule,” he told CNN.

jared leto 2

Photograph by Matty Vogel

Thirty Seconds to Mars released an album in 2018 simply titled, “America.”

Lead singer and Academy Award winner Jared Leto crisscrossed the country to promote it — and on that tour, he found reason to hope.

“The idea of the American dream, the idea of America, the possibility that we can leave this country in a better place for our children and our children’s children — I think people still held on to that,” Leto told CNN, “acknowledging that we’re in very difficult times but looking forward and hopeful that things can be different.”

March For Our Lives Set to Music

let's rise 6

Students from New York’s Music Art and Design Academy found their voice in 2018 singing a gun reform anthem called Let’s Rise.

It was part of a new era of student protest born of the tragedy of yet another school shooting — 17 left dead in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland Florida.

They’re voices were loud and their words were blunt.

emma g

Among high school senior Emma Gonzalez who days after the massacre gave a stirring speech calling on lawmakers for sensible gun reform.

“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and our parents to call BS,” she said.

Parkland survivors launched a campaign called March For Our Lives and held rallies in Washington, D.C. and across the country in March 2018.

The effort was among the biggest youth-led protests since the Vietnam War era.

Photograph by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The teenagers were joined on stage by many in the music industry including Miley Cyrus, Andra Day, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson and Demi Lovato.

Hip hop artists Common told CNN, “I’ve never been a part where the kids were the leaders.

“The more and more I look back at history, I see how many revolutions, change and progress was led by young people.”

After a gripping performance of “We Could Be Free” at the rally, Rapper Vic Mensa told CNN, “It kinda felt like rage against the machine at the Capitol Building.

“This is a powerful event, a powerful moment in time and I believe that this won’t stop here. This will continue and go where it needs to go.”

sir paul

Paul McCartney joined a sister march in New York City. He told CNN, “This is what we can do, so I’m here to do it. One of my best friends was killed in gun violence right around here. So it’s important to me.”

Soundtrack of the #MeToo Movement

As disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault case winds its way through the court system, Amanda Palmer and a host of artists across musical genres penned #MeToo inspired songs in 2018.


Singer/songwriter Halsey gave a moving speech at one of this year’s women’s marches in New York City. She delivered a free verse poem recounting her experience with sexual assault and feelings of powerlessness.

“It’s Olympians and a medical resident and not one f***ing word from the man who is President
It’s about closed doors and secrets and legs and stilettos from the Hollywood hills to the projects in ghettos
When babies are ripped from the arms of teen mothers and child brides cry globally under the covers
Who don’t have a voice on the magazine covers
They tell us take cover
But we are not free until all of us are free.”

The Grammys paid tribute to the movement, as well, with artists wearing white roses — a historic symbol of hope, peace, sympathy and resistance.

Photograph by Andrew Kelly/Reuters

“I burnt my training bra at the first women’s demonstration, that’s how I grew up” Cyndi Lauper told CNN on the red carpet.

“I thought things would change… but things really haven’t changed and we all have our stories — but you always felt like people coming after you would have it easier but now here we are. I think sisterhood is a powerful thing.”

Lisa Loeb told CNN, “I think the music industry, through their songwriting and through the work that they make, has been speaking out for a long time.

“But I’m so happy that everyone is joining together because people look to musicians, they look to entertainers to see what they’re thinking.”

And many male performers say the time for equality is now. Tony Bennett told CNN, “If a woman is a big star, she should make as much money as anybody, if not a little more.”

Sting told CNN, “I think men have messed up. So we want women to be empowered. We want women to be economically equal to men. And I think that’s the key to a lot of these problems.”

Rapping Against Racial Injustice

America’s struggle with racism has always had a soundtrack.

Songs like “Oh Freedom” can be traced back to days after emancipation.

And where would the Civil Rights Movement be without Motown?

Now, rap and hip hop are expressing the feelings of racial discrimination — overwhelming felt by a number of African Americans every day.


The video for Childish Gambino’s “This is America” is laced with metaphors about race and gun violence in the U.S.

It goes from an all-good-on-the-outside with shirtless dancing until violence breaks out all around him and smiling next to a gospel choir until he guns them all down.

Because, in America, just being black means the chances you’ll be shot and killed by police are three times higher compared to someone who is white, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

And when it comes to serving time, a black man is six times more likely to be sentenced to prison than a white man — which might explain why African Americans, who make up a little more than 10% of the entire U.S. population, account for almost 40% of all inmates in federal prison.

meek mill

Rapper Meek Mill told CNN that he and many other formerly incarcerated people are “trapped inside of a system that’s extremely hard for us to get out (of).

“If somebody like myself who’s doing so good for myself — I’m not involved in crime, I’ve been working, I employ people, I pay taxes — if probation can stalk me down and bring me back to a state penitentiary without committing a crime, what could it do to these other kids that are trapped in these environments surrounded by crime and violence? They don’t stand a chance.”

Grammy-award winning musician Ben Harper told CNN, “Trigger happy policing — if the goal is a change within the system, that should be paired with a shift in consciousness. And how those are implemented culturally and within a police force — that’s beyond my job description and above my pay grade — but it’s crucial that we keep the dialog alive, otherwise it’s stagnant.”

tom morello

Photograph by Eitan Miskevich

Rock bassist Tom Morello released an explosive solo album in 2018 called “Atlas Underground” with a host of collaborators. It targets issues of racial inequality like a helmet to helmet hit.

“The murder by African Americans by police is as American as baseball or apple pie,” Morello told CNN. “But what’s new is that now we’re seeing it on cell phones regularly.

“The lyrical theme that goes through this ‘Atlas Underground’ record is social justice ghost stories. The ideas that the heroes, martyrs and those murdered by injustice in the past can inform the present and shine a beacon light to create a more humane and just future.”


It will be a long road to recovery for many parts of California left devastated by the worst wildfires in the state’s history.

But that journey will be made a little easier after some celebrity giving.

While it’s hardly unique for the rich and famous to dig deep after a natural disaster, in 2018, some of the big names helping out like Miley Cyrus are among those who are the victims — those who lost their homes.

neil diamond

Neil Diamond came out of retirement from Parkinson’s Disease to sing to firefighters in Basalt, Colorado – near where Diamond lives — to thank crews for their efforts in containing the Lake Christine Fire.

“I want to take you all home, I want to give you a kiss, I want to make dinner for you, and I just want to say thank you from the people of this area for coming down and this town has not been this happy since… I don’t know,” Diamond told the hundreds of firefighters before serenading them with “Sweet Caroline.”


Country music superstar Brad Paisley held a benefit concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl to support recovery efforts from the Thomas Fire and the deadly mudslides that followed on the Central Coast of California.

“The way that this community was just devastated by this mudslide and everything that happened, tonight I’m reminded of those feelings in a good way in that I don’t feel as helpless now and I finally feel like we’re doing something,” Paisley told CNN affiliate KEYT.

“I know it’s not enough to fix hardly anything that went wrong, but at least we’re doing something and I feel good about that.”

paul simon

Paul Simon is calling an end to his decades-long career. After each show on his farewell tour, he donated $25,000 to a local environmental charity.

“I really think that the number one priority for all of us should be the environment,” Simon told CNN. “I think we’ve damaged the environment to a degree that’s so dangerous that we might be talking about an extinction of life on the planet.”

Bono, Rihanna and Chance the Rapper raised millions of dollars in 2018 so that kids around the world get a chance to go to school.

For 25 years, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has been working to find a cure of HIV. “If there was some humanity in this world, we could just end this right now,” John told CNN.

“And it’s the only disease, major epidemic in our lifetime, we can get rid of. We’re not talking about diabetes. We’re not talking about cancer — not talking about malaria, we’re talking about AIDS. AIDS can go.”

Other musicians making a difference this year: Blake Shelton establishing a cancer research program at Oklahoma’s Children’s Hospital, Demi Lovato offering free therapy sessions and wellness workshops during her new tour and Cardi B giving away winter clothes in her native New York City.

“We gotta set an example for our kids in the future,” Cardi B told CNN affiliate WPIX. “You know, sometimes people think that we just be doing the messed up things. But we really, really, really care for our kids.”

And that was the music which defined a year — music that made a difference in 2018.

Written by: Ben Bamsey and John Vause for CNN. Produced by: Ben Bamsey for CNN

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