Some years ago, the guys from Far East Movement sat at a booth outside the Sunset Room in Hollywood. They had come to sign autographs at a Rock the Vote event and help people at the club register to vote.
But as Kev Nish sat, he realized he wasn't even registered to vote. He'd spent the whole of his youth focused on music with his band, not paying attention to candidates or messages. So that night, he registered.
"I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm fairly late," said the rapper for Far East Movement, whose full name is Kevin Nishimura. "Once I did get involved through music, you know, I was able to learn."
It's the point of Rock the Vote, which for 21 years has rallied to engage young people in the political process through pop culture, entertainment and music. The Rock the Vote bus still tours today, shrouded in street art with Lady Liberty bursting from the back end. It will head to Tampa Bay for the Republican National Convention, stopping Tuesday at Saint Leo University for a concert with Far East Movement, then Ybor City's Amphitheatre for a dance party with DJ Steve Aoki.
Rock the Vote has evolved, but the message has stayed the same: Politics doesn't have to be awful.
"I think about it like a traveling festival for civic engagement," said Rock the Vote president Heather Smith. "Being active in our democracy and our elections doesn't have to be this boring, dry civics lesson. In fact, it's one of the most powerful things we can do."
Smith, 36, took over at Rock the Vote in 2007 before the last election. It was a dream job for Smith, who grew up watching MTV in the 1990s, when Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren translated political jargon for Gen Xers between R.E.M. videos and early episodes of The Real World. Around the same time, celebrities started to appear in Rock the Vote commercials. Madonna sat in a makeup chair and prattled on about voting, comparing it to sex with her boyfriend.
"When we started, it was unique in that young people were typically ignored by politicians and ignored by campaigns," Smith said. "The conventional wisdom was, youth are apathetic and they don't vote. We were able to prove over the past two decades that actually, if you get them registered and address their concerns, they turn out to vote."
In 2008 alone, Rock the Vote registered more than 2.2 million people. But by the start of the 2012 election cycle, the stakes had gotten even higher for millennials. They were facing high unemployment numbers and bleak economic outlooks, saddled with loan debt and rising tuitions. In just four years, they had begun coping and expressing themselves differently, in 140 characters, in memes and filtered Instagrams and Tumblr blogs.
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"This new generation really came of age and started entering the electorate," said Smith. "It changed a lot how we approach our work."
Organizers took the baton from Madonna and Sheryl Crow and passed it to Jack Johnson and Asher Roth. They teamed with an experiential marketing group to equip the tour bus with laptop kiosks and video confessional booths. They outfitted a lounge with Assassin's Creed III, a video game set against the American Revolution, and set up listening stations with rapper Ludacris's line of headphones.
The goal of it all isn't to elect any one person, Smith said. Rock the Vote is all nonpartisan, no matter how liberal the celebrity culture might seem or how young people historically lean.
"The bands we're working with understand that Rock the Vote is about young people," she said. "We're not going to tell you, but we're going to empower you. ... We're very careful. If you're on our stage, you will not be allowed to talk about candidates and campaigns."
Indeed, Kev Nish wouldn't say before his concert whom he supports politically, because Rock the Vote wasn't about that. But at the show, if someone asks? "Who knows?" he said. "We'll let people kind of do their thing. We're never afraid to share."
Turns out he has strong beliefs now, ever since he took a minute to figure them out.