Entertainment, Politics, and Power: Georgia’s Creative Industries in Light of the New Voting Law
By Aylin Güngör
In March 2021, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill (SB) 202 that reformed the state’s voting laws. Put forward by Republican senators in the aftermath of Georgia’s Democratic swing and former president Trump’s allegations of voter fraud in 2020, the bill was born with the stated aim of making the voting process less vulnerable to fraud and widening access to voting. Whether Kemp, who was accused of voter suppression before, and his colleagues conceived of it or not, the new law makes it more difficult for the poor and people of color in urban areas to cast their vote. Among other things, it limits the number of ballot boxes, allows for mail ballots to be sent only upon request, demands a valid ID for absentee ballots while shortening the window to apply for them, and bans water and food provisions to voters in line. Amid the national outcry, even President Biden addressed SB 202, calling it “un-American” and “Jim Crow in the 21st Century”. In the weeks following the bill’s passage, activists and black CEOs called on politicians and corporations to speak out against the law, and many did follow the invitation, with two notable exceptions being Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, two of the state’s largest employers, who were hesitant at first. Some of the harshest reactions to SB 202, however, came from the state’s entertainment industry: Actor Will Smith announced a production relocation for his movie Emancipation; Mark Hamill (actor from the original Star Wars trilogy) and James Mangold (director of Logan and Ford vs. Ferrari) called for a boycott of the state on Twitter. But why should we care about the actions and opinions of a handful of actors and movie studios? Because, while California is still the largest hub for movie and show production, Georgia is catching up: Since new tax incentives for the entertainment industry were set in 2008, many companies have either relocated from the West Coast, opened a new production site, or were directly founded in the “Hollywood of the South”, like Tyler Perry’s studio, which is one of the country’s largest production sites and one of the very few owned by an African American. A growing economy equals growing power and visibility both for individuals in leading positions of the economy and for the location. Moreover, the entertainment industry also encompasses the music industry, which in Georgia translates to Atlanta’s hip-hop economy that plays a decisive role in politics. As the two largest sectors in Georgia’s creative industries, film and music have become a public presence that seems to have helped shift the political outlook of the state. Yet, the creative industries also remain divided about how to truly respond to controversial laws like the passage of the SB 202 voting law. Does Georgia’s creative economy really have political influence?
Georgia’s purple turnout and Stacey Abrams
Georgia’s film and music industries and other growing business opportunities in the state, especially in the metropolitan area of Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta (in short, metro Atlanta), attract young and multiethnic employees who often feel excluded from the white Anglo-Saxon cultural industry of California’s Hollywood and who face higher living costs in places like New York City (cf. Keller and Gerhard 2021). In fact, metro Atlanta ranked fourth among the country’s fastest growing areas between 2010 and 2018, and while the number of African Americans in the city of Atlanta is declining, the number of (native and foreign-born) Black people in the metro area is rising. This diverse group of newcomers tends to be more liberal and left-leaning than the average Georgian population, and according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Black, Latinx and Asian registered voters in the state has been growing since 2016, whereas the number of white voters is in decline. Of course, the rising number of multiethnic residents and the state’s Democratic turn in the presidential and Senate elections of 2020 – often referred to as a ‘purple’ turnout because the blue Democrats have only won by a slight margin against the red Republicans in 2020 – does not have to be a causal relationship; there are many reasonable explanations for a state’s changing voting behavior. Yet, there have been some politicians who were able to move along the changing political landscape in Georgia and who built strategic allegiances between politics, the creative industries and local communities. Stacey Abrams in particular was successful in shifting the political environment in Georgia: Attributed a significant role in both President Biden’s and Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s victories in 2020, she has been engaging in voting rights activism and has founded Fair Fight Action and The New Georgia Project, non-profit organizations that aim at mobilizing a potential electorate. A growing awareness of voting issues among people of color is to a certain degree the result of Abrams’ unique efforts in the entertainment industry. One of her most recent initiatives consisted of joining a rap battle between Atlanta rappers Jeezy and Gucci Mane in November 2020, where Abrams urged viewers to vote in the Georgia Senate runoff election. This was a strategic move to mobilize young voters because they tend to refrain from voting (Holbein and Hillygus 2020; Zukin et al. 2006) – but they often can be reached through digital channels like social media.
In total, 9.1 million viewers saw the stream and Abrams’ message, and although there is no data on the impact of this surprise appearance, the sheer number of people and their live stream reactions show that her message did not fall on deaf ears. Indeed, Abrams has been engaging with Atlanta’s local hip-hop stars for years because, feeling disenfranchised from politics, rappers such as Jeezy and their communities tend to abstain from voting. Yet, they constitute a powerful potential voting bloc. Thus, building relationships with local trusted celebrities is an effective way to distribute one’s political message among potential voters.
Stacey Abrams’ local strategy is to get involved with powerful people in the music sector that are assigned with ‘street credibility’ and therefore are trusted by their fans. Her broader strategy came to follow a similar principle: In 2008, in her role as a Georgia State Representative, she voted for the film tax credit that would lure companies and jobs to the state. With film companies and people actually moving to the state, more opportunities for voter mobilization opened up for Abrams. In December 2020, for example, she organized Rock the Runoff, a concert in support of Democratic candidates Ossoff and Warnock with high-profile celebrities such as John Legend and Justin Timberlake. As Abrams said: “I believe in the power of celebrity to cut through the noise of politics.” If we trust journalists’ intuition, the music economy is, qualitatively speaking, more influential for mobilizing local voters, and film production is responsible for quantitative changes – for attracting employees that have voted before and will do so again.
Here are some numbers to contextualize the creative industries’ impact on the state: In 2016, the film and television sector employed around 85,300 people. The state’s creative economy as a whole – including music, digital entertainment, arts and culture – provided 140,000 jobs and had an annual revenue of $37 billion. These numbers equal five percent of all employment and four percent of all business revenue in the state. Since the implementation of the film tax credit in 2008, Georgia’s number of employees and wages have been rising (and they have quickly recovered after a setback due to Covid in 2020) (Meares et al. 2020). With the creative industries’ growth, more diverse people and views are getting a more visible stage. Stacey Abrams seems to have realized this and has actively supported this change. She also specifically targets these groups in her efforts to mobilize the vote. While it does make sense for liberal politicians like Stacey Abrams to engage in every corner of the state’s creative industries, there are important differences within the industry in regard to the nature of political participation.
Homegrown vs. foreign activism
While local hip-hop activism often works through communal ties that mobilize long-time residents to vote, statewide film production often attracts newcomers that have voted Democratic before. These are two distinct channels that feed into a growing electorate. Although some claim that the Democratic victories are based on the local hip-hop community’s efforts, it is difficult to determine which of the two economies – hip-hop or film – had more influence on the presidential and Senate elections’ outcome in 2020. Taken together, the creative industries create jobs and opportunities for activism, boost the state’s revenue and attract young and ethnically diverse people. Both long-established local creatives as well as liberal newcomers in the creative industries in Georgia contribute to future of Georgia politics – and Stacey Abrams is one to have realized this potential. The goals and political views of both the local and statewide industries are similar, but when it comes to voting rights law SB 202, the strategies to address it vary greatly among locals and newcomers.
After a narrow victory of the Democrats, the new voting law passed in March 2021 was perceived by liberal voters and politicians as a major setback in their efforts to re-address decades-long Republican law-making in the state; even more so because it was signed by Governor Kemp who was responsible for the so-called heartbeat bill in 2019 that made abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy a felony. The bill was eventually struck down but not before protests from abortion rights activists and Democrats, among them Stacey Abrams, took place which were supported by Hollywood celebrities. The creative industries traditionally tend to lean left and thus are opposed to the new SB 202. Yet, choosing the best strategy to combat the new voting law is delicate: Will Smith, Mark Hamill and James Mangold, for instance, announced leaving the state with their businesses and even called for a boycott of the state; Stacey Abrams, Tyler Perry, Bethany Anne Lind (starring the show Ozark) and others, on the other hand, urged Hollywood not to pull out of Georgia. While some individuals, especially ‘transplants’ from the West Coast with little attachment to Georgia, want to fight the bill by damaging the state’s image and revenues, those with strong and established ties to the state fear that ordinary people may lose their livelihoods. If Hollywood pulled out of Georgia and people lost their jobs, they would be punished for the actions of big players, and get-out-the-vote efforts could be perceived as useless. Therefore, Abrams opposes this idea and instead asks the industry to stay and fight along with locals against Kemp’s bill.
The future of SB 202 and Georgia’s creative industries
Between the 2020 election results and the end of September 2021, 19 states have enacted restrictive legislation under the lead of Republican policy makers. In contrast, 25 states enacted laws that expand voting access. So, are the worries over voter suppression an overreaction? Not really. As the Brennan Center for Justice argues, these efforts do not restore balance, because the states with new restrictive laws are the ones with difficult voting access to begin with, and those with new expansive legislation were already more voter-friendly. At the moment, SB 202 faces several legal challenges. The U.S. Department of Justice, for instance, filed a lawsuit against the State of Georgia aptly named “Stop Racially Discriminatory Provisions of New Voting Law”. Furthermore, Democrats have introduced laws that would support voting rights on a federal level – the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – but they still need to be passed in the Senate, which is unlikely because of the lack of a 60-vote majority on the side of the Democrats.
What does all this mean for the state of Georgia? If Georgia’s new voting law remains, it will be a great burden on scaling up voting in the state and this will again make it even harder for diverse and poor communities to make their voices heard in elections. Another result could be that the creative industries that have thrived in Georgia in recent years might shrink. If Hollywood leaves Georgia, its ‘transplants’ will move, too, and the state’s economy along with those left behind will suffer. Locals with strong ties to the state, such as hip-hop artists and activists and the communities they engage with, will stay and continue with their work, albeit from a weakened position. As Governor Kemp stated that the voting law is “worth the boycotts as well as the lawsuits”, threatening a boycott is probably a waste of effort. Moreover, boycotting a state and moving to a location that aligns more with a business’s political views might be comfortable because entrepreneurs do not have to engage politically to change state laws. In the beginning, I mentioned that Coca-Cola and Delta hesitated to condemn SB 202. That is because they originally backed politicians who pushed the law forward (which is not surprising given Coca-Cola’s complicated history). Only when staying silent came close to public suicide did the companies take a stand against the bill – it was nothing more than lip service. The creative industries in Georgia, or, rather, the transplants of West Coast entertainment, run the risk of doing just the same. Therefore, it might make more sense for politicians like Stacey Abrams to support local celebrities and cultural initiatives rather than West Coast Hollywood to ensure sustainable social change.
With its financial revenue and employment opportunities, the creative sector in Georgia, especially film production, has gained economic power. At the same time, the growing visibility of the sector ensures that celebrities reach a wider audience. But only in combination with local hip-hop activism and neighborhood mobilization did these strategies seem to have had an impact on the victories of President Joe Biden and Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. It remains to be seen if the new voting law actually suppresses voter turnout or if activists and voters will find a way around it in the coming midterm elections. The effect of the new voting law and the success of pending voting legislation on the federal level along with the continuous efforts of activists and politicians will determine if and how the creative industries will be able to wield political influence in the future.
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Header: “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed” by 99.films on Unsplash.
Stacey Abrams’s visit at Verzuz battle (screenshot): Rap Politics. 2020. “Jeezy VS Gucci Mane.” Accessed October 19, 2021. Time stamp: 1:46.
“I’m a Georgia Voter” by KennyS2468, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
“Gaming the Vote” by Keith Knight, CC BY 2.0.
About the Author
Aylin Güngör is a PhD candidate in the graduate program Authority and Trust (GKAT) at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA). Her research focuses on the impact of cultural productions on urban communities’ civic participation. She holds a BA in British and American Studies from the University of Konstanz and an MA in English Studies from the University of Heidelberg. Get in touch via e-mail.