In an election season where get out the vote messaging is seemingly ceaseless, a 90-second video featuring more than a half dozen dancers testifying to the importance of down ballot races may be the most provocative.
In the video, a woman in knee high, lace up boots walks away from the camera, toward a stage decorated with patriotic bunting. She wraps one of her hands around a silver pole.
The beat drops, the woman and other dancers begin to perform, and the repeated message is a simple one: "Get Your Booty To The Poll." It's a different kind of voting PSA, one that has stirred up a conversation about who shows up in elections and who isn't being reached by the current outreach efforts.
WARNING: The video below contains content that may be inappropriate for some readers.
The video, directed by Angela Barnes, has gone viral online, despite being intended for an Atlanta-based audience, with a limited promotional strategy so far.
Barnes said that she and producer Paul Fox wanted to make this video to fill a gap in traditional get out the vote messaging that she feels largely fails to reach Black men. But she said she wanted to target a more specific, smaller demographic within the subset of potential Black male voters, and so she chose to center the video in Atlanta's booming strip club scene.
"Atlanta has a strip club culture. People go out and go on dates at strip clubs, people get married and have funerals at strip clubs," Barnes, who is from Atlanta, explained. "You know, people don't go there just to see like, naked people. You go there for the vibe."
Some of the dancers featured in the video have worked in Atlanta area clubs, Barnes said, while others are competitive dancers. As they perform a series of pole tricks, the dancers articulate why it is so important to engage in local elections and vote for down-ballot candidates.
"A district attorney decides not to prosecute," one dancer says in the video. "Including whether or not to go after dirty cops. Do you know who elects the DA? We do, but you don't want to vote."
"Can't make it rain if you're locked up on some bulls***," another dancer observes.
Barnes' argument about failure to engage black men has some resonance in political circles. Black Americans are one of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies. But when it comes to who turns out to vote, there is a gap between Black men and Black women.
The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2016, 54% of eligible Black men said they had voted. Meanwhile 64% of eligible Black women said they had voted. And that represents a much larger gender gap than for white or Hispanic voters.
While this ad is focused on candidates and issues down the ballot, the candidates at the top of the 2020 ballot — President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden — have each seen their campaigns make explicit appeals to Black men.
The video has not been without its critics, some louder than others. The film producer Tariq Nasheed, who often traffics in online conspiracy, was among those critical of the PSA online, arguing on Twitter that, "Instead of talking about our tangibles, this is what the white Democrats think will appeal to us."
Though she did not address him by name, Barnes pushed back on Nasheed's critique, noting that both she and producer Paul Fox are Black and added that "we're not backed by anybody."
These types of critiques are precisely the kind that Barnes said she wanted to avoid and are one of the reasons that she and her team chose to make this ad nonpartisan.
"People don't really like to be told who to vote for, and my concern was that if we made this one side or the other, people would think, 'Oh, they're just trying to get us to vote for them,'" she said. "And it's funny because it ended up kind of happening anyway."
Barnes has said that she and Fox largely self funded the video and are unaffiliated with any organization, and a GoFund Me backing the project has raised more than $13,000.
Others have criticized the ad for being too explicit and playing into stereotypes about Black men. Mondale Robinson of the Black Male Voter Project, who consulted on the ad, pushed back on that criticism.
"If LeBron James had on a Lakers jersey talking politics right now, no one is going to say anything," Robinson said. "So, if they have a problem with sisters dancing and talking about issues that are important, then your real problem is not with the issues or the sisters talking about the issues. It's something deeply embedded in you, in what is considered decent work and not decent work."
Robinson, who just wrapped up a multi-state tour aimed at engaging Black men this election season, said that the ad is effective because it speaks to issues that Black men in the state care about, and does so in a culturally relevant way.
The issues highlighted in the ad, including abolishing the cash bail system, trades being taught in school and criminal justice reform were things that came up in the conversations that Robinson's group spearheaded with Black men across the state of Georgia.
But he also cautioned that without regular, repeated conversations with and for Black men about issues they actually care about, they won't engage when it's time to vote.
"The national election won't excite Black men. That is not to say that Black men won't participate in the national election, that is to say it won't be the reason that they do," he said.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's one way to get out the vote - have strippers tell people to cast their ballots. NPR's Juana Summers reports on a public service announcement.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: A dancer in white knee-high lace-up boots walks away from the camera and toward a silver pole. She grabs the pole with one hand. The beat drops.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singer) Get your booty to the poll. Get your booty to the poll. Get your booty to the poll.
SUMMERS: An assortment of dancers perform pole tricks - one after the other, sometimes together. This is a different kind of public service announcement.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #1: Did we get your attention? Good.
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #2: So you're really not going to vote?
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #3: You know it's more than just the president on the ballot, right?
SUMMERS: Those were a couple of the dancers featured in the video from Director Angela Barnes. She's from Atlanta and said that she was specifically targeting Black men there, which led her to pick this approach.
ANGELA BARNES: Atlanta has a strip club culture. People go out and go on dates at strip clubs. People get married and have funerals at strip clubs. You know, people don't go there just to see, like, naked people; you go there for the vibe.
SUMMERS: Barnes said that she and producer Paul Fox, who largely paid for the video themselves along with some crowdsourced fundraising, wanted to make this PSA to fill a gap in traditional get-out-the-vote messaging.
BARNES: We felt that Black men in general are not really, you know, paid attention to by most elected officials. Black people in general are taken for granted, I think, and ignored in politics.
SUMMERS: Black Americans are one of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies. But when it comes to who turns out to vote, there is a gap between Black men and Black women. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2016, 54% of eligible Black men said they had voted. Meanwhile, 64% of eligible Black women said that they had voted. And that represents a much larger gender gap than for their white or Hispanic counterparts.
Mondale Robinson is the founder of the Black Male Voter Project, and he consulted on this video. He said that the ad is effective because it speaks to issues that Black men in the state care about, and it does so in a culturally relevant way. He also pushed back against critics who have said the video is too sexual or degrading to the Black men that it's trying to reach.
MONDALE ROBINSON: If LeBron James had on a Lakers jersey talking politics right now, no one is going to say anything. So if they have a problem with sisters, you know, dancing, talking about issues that are important, then your real problem is not with the issues or the sisters talking about the issues; it's something that's deeply embedded in you about what is considered decent work and not decent work.
SUMMERS: This video doesn't advocate for any party or any specific politician. Instead, the dancers talk about the impact of down-ballot votes. The issues mentioned in the ad draw from a series of conversations that Robinson spearheaded with Black men across the state of Georgia.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #4: Want trades and coding taught in our schools?
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #5: Then vote for the school boards that will prepare us for the job market.
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #6: Want to end cash bail?
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #7: Well, then vote for the sheriffs and county officials that feel the same way you do.
SUMMERS: Barnes describes herself as progressive but said that the video was intentionally not partisan. She said that people and particularly Black men don't like being told who or what to vote for. Instead, she wanted to keep the focus on the issues.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #8: If they matter to you...
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #9: ...Then don't let other people decide who's going to run your community.
UNIDENTIFIED DANCER #10: Get your booty to the poll.
SUMMERS: Juana Summers, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF KLIMEKS' "RINGS OF SATURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.