One night this summer, triggered by news of President Donald Trump making yet another inflammatory statement, Zach Ellis of Dead Tooth wrote the chorus to the recently dropped song, “I Hate the Precedent,” by band Death Tooth and No Surrender.
The chords were brooding, angry and tense, the way he felt about the state of the world.
“For me, it’s hard to navigate putting out politically charged music, but I felt like this was really obvious — I couldn’t think of anything else, I wasn’t feeling much else about the world other than how terrible of a situation we’re in,” Ellis said in a phone call from his apartment in Bushwick. “When it’s almost impossible to write about other stuff that you cherish or love, that’s the appropriate time to say something.”
Ellis had been working on an EP with Darius VanSluytman of the Brooklyn group No Surrender when he sent over the working song. They put their other songs aside and worked to get “I Hate the Precedent.”
“This was the crux of that moment, when we need to make decisions,” VanSluytman said, from his Crown Heights apartment. “We’re musicians, we’re artists, and this is what we can contribute. Zach came up with something that was really powerful for the time. Beyond Covid, it was a rude awakening of having to analyze our stance, criminal justice reform, racism in this country. All of these darker things. And we have a president who stands for a lot of these things, he sort of personifies America at its worst. I think the song needed to happen.”
Bushwick has long had a reputation of being the center of New York City’s art scene, spawning passionate artists of all mediums bursting with new ideas. The anxiety and tension leading up to Tuesday’s presidential election led several local artists to express their hopes and fears through their work, both for themselves and in hopes of encouraging the community to vote.
Last month, Dead Tooth and No Surrender released the video to “I Hate the Precedent,” a spooky electronic beat with blues influence that’s loud and clear in its message, as it features a pompous Trump-like figure with flames swirling around him. Zach croons out:
short devious impeachable smear / his stupid reasons and his stupid ideas / I hate the president / I hate the president / and the precedent that he sets
The video ends with, in bold letters: “For the love of God, VOTE.”
There’s a balance in their upcoming EP — not all of their songs are as direct as “I Hate the Precedent.” But the political tones will always exist, even if they’re subtle. An artists can’t just take their life experiences out of their art, VanSluytman explained.
“For me, beyond being a musician, I’m a black man in American. I’m politicized whether I want to be or not,” he said. “There’s no part of my art that can totally escape, there’s some thread of social awareness or social justice or resistance because that’s what I know.”
Bushwick musician Katie Rush’s album isn’t expected until next year, but she recently released her song “World Leader” and its video to coincide with the election. It’s come full circle, as the melody first came to her when she was in line voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Very coincidentally, Trump came to vote just as I was waiting in line,” she said. “I was thinking about world leaders and if he won. When he did, I knew I needed to write something. I had a bad feeling.”
The video begins with visceral images of injustice around the U.S. in recent years, from the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally and West Coast forest fires, and then shifts to images of people, specifically women, to be admired, from environmental activist Greta Thunberg to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Rush’s words, sounding ethereal and bit retro, rings over the images:
Never in my life have I seen a great destroyer / Who could tear apart our very land / Never in my life have I seen such a liar / Put us down / I still believe that we have the power / Won’t stand for this / Can’t get us down / Still gonna win
“I hope it inspires people to vote and hope for something better,” she said.
Bushwick artist Ryan Bock also worked on a project designed to encourage the New York community to vote in Tuesday’s election. Christie’s, the iconic art auction house, called on Bock and four other artists to create pieces for its landing page, designed to empower and inform residents how to, and why they should, vote.
“I’ve always been interested in doing political work; I would say the last four years I’ve gotten a little bit more serious about it,” Bock said. “Definitely Trump getting into office, I did a lot of reactionary work early on. It’s becoming more and more important to get involved. I’ve been making more of an effort to do that.”
While the pieces in his repertoire are usually more pointed, less subtle, he made sure his work for Christie’s — created in his signature abstract style, in black, white and gray tones — illustrated how he was feeling.
“I hope people can relate,” he said. “I feel pretty nervous.” He elaborated on Instagram: “I will however say this: despite my 100% abstract reasoning, despite all my apparent creativity- voting is the only viable solution I see to moving forward and exacting the change I want to see.”
Despite an election deadline, the time is now for artists to continue using their work to illustrate the moment, to fight for change.
“Real life affects us. Art reflects life. Past Nov. 3, we’re going to have a lot of work to do,” VanSluytman said. “In the art scene, the music scene. It’s a wild ride.”
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