President Donald Trump’s political rallies need to please stop the music. R&B singer Rihanna’s artistic voice and public image are being used without her consent in the name of political gain, and she has been outspoken in her discontent.
Legality aside, when an artist’s songs are played at events that don’t represent their beliefs or values as an artist, there are serious ethical and moral concerns to be considered.
The music played at Trump’s rallies have become a point of aggravated contention. “Currently, Rihanna’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ is blaring in Chattanooga as aides toss free Trump t-shirts into the crowd, like a ball game,” tweeted reporter Philip Rucker on Nov. 4. Rihanna replied an hour later: “Not for much longer… me nor my people would ever be at or around one of those tragic rallies.”
What does “not for much longer” entail? Rihanna’s music publisher, Broadcast Music Inc., removed her work from the political entities license that previously allowed her music to be played. The update was included in a formal cease and desist letter addressed to the administration.
Another course of action available to artists in similar situations is to pursue legal action under the Lanham Act. This protects against dilution of public image or to claim false endorsement, meaning they could contend the Trump campaign was using celebrities’ images for their own gain.
However, there are legal ways of side-stepping Rihanna’s claims the Trump campaign could implement in order to continue playing Rihanna’s music. Most venues have public performance licenses, permitting them access to a set catalog of songs. If the venue has her music in its public performance license agreement, the campaign could still use her work.
Rihanna isn’t the first artist to speak up against the Trump campaign’s song choice and differentiate legality from morality. This controversy has been brewing since June 2015. Trump’s first rallies featured Neil Young’s “Rockin in the Free World.” Young put out a statement condemning Trump’s use of the song and soon after, the campaign agreed to stop and no legal action was taken.
The rock band R.E.M. was the first to threaten legal action against the campaign, asking for a cease and desist in a public letter. “Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign,” stated vocalist Michael Stipe to the Rolling Stone.
Stipe’s use of the phrases “our music” and “my voice” hits home on the core of this issue. Music literally contains the voice and public image an artist has established over many years. Music reflects the artists’ own personal expression, beliefs and values. When Trump plays a Rihanna song at his rally, he is inserting his own values and political beliefs into her work by connecting her public image with his. Even if there are legal loopholes to get away with this, stealing another’s voice for political gain is ethically and morally wrong.
Music taps into implicit memory, the part of the brain connecting memory with emotional responses. Hearing a Rihanna song the day after a Trump rally would likely remind the listener of the rally, Trump’s politics and their emotions surrounding the event. The brain consequently associates Rihanna’s music with Trump, an association Rihanna did not consent to.
An artist not wanting their music associated with political ideologies they disagree with is both an emotional and rational response with legal avenues to back it up. All artists should do whatever it takes to protect their work in order for others to take their beliefs and values seriously. By taking action against Trump’s rallies, Rihanna is reclaiming her public image, but more importantly, she is reclaiming her voice.