Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson isn’t new to presidential politics. In 2004, he joined MTV and Rock the Vote in promoting voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, but this year he’s transformed himself into an active “surrogate” for the Obama campaign, making speeches and spinning records at block parties, posting flyers on both coasts and driving vanloads of volunteers.
His activism fits with the mood of the Roots’ new album, the anguished Rising Down, with grooves fueled by global conflict and American cities in crisis. On the Roots’ current tour with Gym Class Heroes, he and rapper Travis McCoy are turning their joint after-parties into Obama “pow wows,” pushing registration in states where the deadline hasn’t yet passed. ?uestlove won’t rest until the morning after Election Day, November 4.
What is this tour like with Gym Class Heroes?
We know they’re going to bring a whole new audience to the table, mainly young females we’re not able to reach. [Laughs] Our show is spontaneous, so we’re going to do what we’ve been doing for the last 17 years.
The new record has a lot of timely content. How does that affect the live show?
It’s not as heavy and political as our album, but you will know the seriousness of the times that we live in.
Are you doing more this election than in the past?
Initially, I was shy about it. My involvement with campaigning for Obama was really reduced to layman work. I’d get up at 3:30 in the morning, get a big-ass van and a whole bunch of flyers. All those signs you seen on your front door with Obama’s face on it? All of California? I’ve done that. I’ve called Democrats — you know, real volunteer work, not that whole “Hey, I’m a celebrity! Do exactly what I do, kid.”
You’ve been doing that for how long?
I started with the California primary [on February 5]. Then some stuff in Texas and Ohio, a lot in Pennsylvania, some stuff in Baltimore. Wherever they can utilize me, either to raise money with DJ gigs or at a table for registration or personally going to a lot of block parties and speaking. And I really hate public speaking more than anything, so you know I’m scared to death if I’m willing to get up in front of a bunch of kids who still don’t know who I am, to make sure everyone is registered.
Are you doing anything while on tour?
Travis [McCoy] and I are both combining our after-parties into Obama pow wows, to make sure people are registered. I know that at least 50 percent of America had October 6 as the deadline, but there are at least 12 cities we’re going to that have an extended deadline. Those are the places we’re concentrating on: places like Milwaukee, spots in Ohio, Virginia, a lot of places. There is a lot of information that people don’t know. Obama is such a ubiquitous celebrity figure, probably to the point that I haven’t seen so much T-shirt action in the inner city since the days of Michael Jackson in 1984. We’re trying to get the message out on that particular day: Please do not wear any Obama paraphernalia. You’re technically not supposed to wear any paraphernalia or signs or buttons within 100 feet of the polls. Technically, they can be sent home, and if they’re sent home, they’re discouraged.
Election Night will be a big night for you.
It will be an interesting night, win or lose. There is going to be something in the air. I don’t want people to be too celebratory, like they won the lottery, and I don’t want them to be so angry that it causes a riot.
Will you stay politically active after the election?
I’m going to have to. All those things we talk about on Rising Down, all the nihilism, all the violence that occurs — Philly is in dire need of a proper cleansing. A healing. The economy is truly affecting us. Right across the bridge from us in Camden, 70 percent of all black people are unemployed, so that’s why crime is going up. Then on top of that, violence is loose, and murder. Camden is the murder capitol of the United States of America. Philly is in second place. A lot of civil unrest there. I’m trying to start an arts program in Philadelphia that enables kids to have something to distract them, to keep them off the streets. I took 20 students to a Broadway play last night. It’s very small, but the one thing I’ve learned in the Obama campaign is small activism is very effective as it spreads.