Protest: Ted Leo | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Protest: Ted Leo

Rocking Against Mansplaining

Dec 01, 2017 Ted Leo Photography by Ray Lego (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

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A volunteer for a transgender help hotline. A young black woman struggling with the facets of race in America. Patrons at an Orlando, Florida venue with a proud rainbow logo on the door.

These are but a few of the gig attendees who approached indie rock troubadour Ted Leo to share moving stories during the string of shows he began playing on Nov. 9, 2016. That was, of course, a significant date because it was the day after the fateful presidential election of Donald Trump. The post gig conversations Leo had with fans helped solidify one of his longest held mantras, which he scrawled on a sign for Under the Radar: “Straight white cis men: It’s O.K. to just shut up and just listen.”

“I hesitate to say too much about it because it will go against the spirit of the sign,” says Leo (who recently self-released a new album, The Hanged Man). To quickly summarize his sign, Leo explains: “I’ve seen so many examples of the most tone deaf white dude intrusion into a conversation to assert some sort of authority, one that not only nobody needs to hear, but is sometimes just wrong.”

Prime example: an up-and-coming designer that Leo follows on Twitter recently tweeted about how excited she was to have finished writing her first book. Then, a more established man in that field commented that she had not really finished a thoroughly researched, properly vetted book under a publishing deal, instead calling what she had written a mere “text.” Leo was infuriated to see that on his Twitter feed. It capped off a year of stories from the marginalized, disenfranchised, or disrespected, the most memorable of which he heard during the tour of the rust belt and the South arranged to begin immediately after last year’s presidential election.

“Emotions were really raw. I didn’t want to get in the car and drive to Richmond, Virginia, so soon after the election,” he says. But it didn’t take long for him to realize how vital those shows were, for both his fellow left leaning indie rock devotees in these red state towns and for Leo himself.

“Sometimes people suggest that we’re just preaching to the choir, as if that’s necessarily a bad thing,” he says of such shows. “I don’t see it that way. Going to all these towns, and playing for people who needed a reason to get out of the house and have a community, it’s hugely important.”

As much as he loved the shows, Leo says he was all the more moved by being able to subsequently “just sit and talk to people all night and hear what’s going on with them, after playing music that’s heavy but also fun for them. I left not wanting to do it, and wound up coming back so happy that I did.”

After that tour of flyover towns, Leo also performed at a few benefits in Washington, D.C., on inauguration day. Funds for the first went to a local organization for homeless and mental healthcare outreach. He then played at an elder care outreach and a national Planned Parenthood benefit.

“It reinforced the idea that we have to operate on these two levels,” says Leo. “The big Planned Parenthood benefit I played, that’s national. And then there’s this street level stuff that is at least as important. Especially when you’re facing the Paul Ryan agenda, which will devastate the most vulnerable levels of our society.”

That approach is as no frills and pragmatic as the veteran rocker’s music. It’s also an attempt to play songs that not only offer audiences solace, but also raise money for daily street level action. “And it’s not really about coming to any grand solutions, other than we’re all still here, and we all still have the energy to keep working and make things better.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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