Hive Five: Musicians With Political Cred

Susana Baca performs in August 2004. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Last week, the geniuses in Washington narrowly averted economic catastrophe by agreeing at the last minute to raise the national debt ceiling. Criticized by members of both parties, as well as Standards & Poors, Congress’ plan offers further proof that America, like most countries around the world, isn’t being run by the smartest, most capable people. Perhaps we should start electing more musicians. Think about it: learning an instrument or cultivating one’s singing voice takes sacrifice and dedication, and the same creativity that leads to great records might help the world solve its most vexing problems. A number of rock and pop stars have already made forays into public office, and while their leadership skills are open to debate, Hive salutes the following five folks for infiltrating their nations’ political scenes and starting the conversation … in their own unique rockin’ ways.

1. Susana Baca, Peruvian Minister of Culture

Last month, shortly after taking office, populist Peruvian president Ollanta Humala named singer Susana Baca minister of culture, making her the first black Peruvian to hold such a position since the country gained independence from Spain nearly two centuries ago. The appointment came as Baca, a Latin Grammy-winning Afro-Peruvian songstress signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop world-music label, prepared to launch tours of the United States and Europe, both of which she plans to go ahead with. “I have a difficult year ahead of me, with many concerts, but I have always been interested in working for Peru,” she told Peru’s RPP radio. “I will work to ensure that culture is not something that is only enjoyed by the people who can afford it, but that it be democratic, and that it reaches everyone and is inclusive.” That all sounds great, although the endorsement of a former Talking Head was enough to win our support.

2. Peter Garrett, Member of Australian House of Representatives

As leader of Midnight Oil—Australia’s answer to the Clash, or at least Big Country or the Alarm — Peter Garrett sang about issues ranging from the environment to aboriginal rights. Since the band’s breakup in 2003, Garrett has focused on politics, and in 2004, he won a seat in the House of Representatives. That led to a stint as minister for the environment, heritage, and the arts, although he was demoted in early 2010, after a home-insulation program sponsored by his department led to the deaths of four people. His career shifted, though: In September 2010, after winning reelection, Garrett was named minister of school education, childhood and early youth. That month, the Sydney Morning Herald described him as, “A potential risk but good with people and better suited to this new portfolio.”

3. Sonny Bono, U.S. Representative

The only U.S. congressman to have scored a number-one pop hit — “I Got You Babe,” his 1965 duet with then-wife Cher — Sonny Bono won California’s 44th district congressional seat in 1994, having previously served four years as mayor of Palm Springs. Bono’s life and political career were cut short in January 1998, when he struck a tree while skiing, but colleagues honored the Republican lawmaker later that year with the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, a law that extended copyright protection to artists’ lifetimes plus 70 years. Bono had co-sponsored a similar bill in the House, staking a pro-artist—and by extension, pro-business—position years before digital file sharing brought copyright issues into the national spotlight.

4. Michel Martelly, President of Haiti

Although Wyclef Jean was declared ineligible in August 2010 to run for Haiti’s top office, the Caribbean nation was destined to have a pop-star president. Instead of a former Fugee, Haitians got “Sweet Micky,” or Michel Martelly, as he’s known these days. Before winning a contentious national election earlier this year, Martelly was a pioneering figure in Compas music—a traditional Haitian style derived from meringue. He never crossed over to the United States, but he did appear on Wyclef’s 1997 solo debut, The Carnival. Despite the optimism accompanying Martelly’s election, some remain skeptical that a singer can reverse the earthquake-ravaged country’s fortunes. “It is total blindness … We know him as a music star, we don’t know him in terms of governance or taking charge,” an anonymous businessman told the Los Angeles Times.

5. Don Gerard, Mayor of Champaign, Illinois

Don Gerard is just a mayor, but as Barack Obama proved, little-known Illinois Democrats can go on to do big things. Should this bassist and drummer decide to run for state or federal office, he would do well to campaign behind the Moon Seven Times, the not-half-bad dream-pop group he played with back in the ‘90s. (Check out their still active Myspace page) Gerard promised during the campaign to conduct a thorough audit of city finances, but when asked about it on election night, he responded like a true rock star. “We’re going to go out and have a drink first, and we’ll think about that tomorrow,” he said, according to the News-Gazette.

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