Canvassing with the artist’s help

Canvassing with the artist’s help

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 19 September, 2015
Shepard Fairey’s revised Hope poster. | The Islington artwork referencing Kanye West’s presidential ambitions (made by street artist Pegasus).
The London street artist Pegasus is having a hell of a September, it has to be said. It’s not every day that you draw a semi-nude portrait of the Queen. The controversial artist drew his royal tribute (in honour of her becoming England’s longest-ruling monarch) on the side of the Winchester Bar in north London. It shows a young Elizabeth Windsor sans pants, drawn against the backdrop of a Union Jack, with the word “History” scribbled behind her. It was always going to be tough to top that, you’d think. Who can possibly trump the Queen?
The answer, like always, is His Yeeziness Kanye West himself. As those of us not living under a rock know, the American hip-hop artist recently announced that he would like to run for President in 2020. West drops a bomb like this every three months or so. The reactions, particularly on Twitter, take the scenic route: from denial to depression to acceptance. Pegasus, it seems, chose to focus on the plus side of this particular announcement: Kim Kardashian, a rare First Lady who was a TV star before moving into the White House. In honour of this, he drew Kardashian in the nude, stencilled from one of her photographs for Paper magazine, the photoshoot that broke the internet. The legend “Kanye For President” is superimposed on the painting which, according to the artist, may be seen in America soon. When that happens, one hopes the Empire State Building survives the resulting tremors.
Pegasus is hardly the only artist whose purple patch was triggered off by the prospect of a lip-smacking electoral campaign. In 1969, John Lennon wrote and recorded Come Together, a song inspired by a Timothy Leary catchphrase. Believe it or not, the song was written after Leary decided to run against Ronald Reagan in the California gubernatorial race and asked Lennon to write him a campaign song. In the book All We Are Saying by David Sheff, Lennon explained the story behind the song thus: “It’s gobbledygook; Come Together was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, Come Together, which would’ve been no good to him: you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?”
Closer home, Bollywood has, time and again, lent its talents to the great election tamaasha. This correspondent has not-so-fond memories of Vishal Dadlani ruining several early morning slumbers last winter: Dadlani sang the Aam Aadmi Party’s campaign song Paanch Saal Kejriwal, which was then played relentlessly across Delhi; the word “earworm” comes to mind. But that’s the point of a campaign song, one feels: to drown out the rest of the shouting voices. If only they could do so after mass-distributing state-of-the-art headphones.
The Samajwadi Party did not compose a new song for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Perhaps this was deemed to be too expensive, or too risky, or both. What we do know is that they somehow convinced Billy Joel that using his classic number We Didn’t Start The Fire to sway voters from Allahabad and Noida and Bareilly was a good idea (which is why they were sold the rights to the song). Indian politicians have, after all, convinced us of much more colourful things than this.
The Samajwadi Party’s campaign song (sung by noted playback singer Javed Ali) was called Mann Se Hain Mulayam, set to the tune of We Didn’t Start The Fire. The lyrics of the adapted version are also, in a way, related to the original words. Just like Joel referenced some key moments in American history, Mann Se Hain Mulayam (named after Mulayam Singh Yadav) name-checks the most iconic Indian socialist leaders of recent times. All of this did not save the song from being lampooned widely on social media. Some things just do not mix: Mulayam Singh Yadav and a Billy Joel song is one such combination. 
Queen Elizabeth’s portrait drawn by Pegasus.The road to Delhi goes through UP and Bihar, they say. And Bihar wasn’t about to lose out on the election ditty sweepstakes: not too long ago, Nitish Kumar hired ace composer Sneha Khanwalkar to make a song for the upcoming state elections. The song is called Phir Se Nitishe and is sung by Neeti Mohan. It is a typical Khanwalkar song: built on a solid dholak foundation (not entirely unlike Jiya Ho from Gangs of Wasseypur), catchy riffs aplenty and a soulful mid-tempo segue after the first paragraph. Whether the song makes a significant contribution to Kumar’s campaign remains to be seen.
These are strange times. While dim-witted ideologues like Kim Davis are regularly lionised, the artist Shepard Fairey was arrested recently in Detroit. You may remember Fairey from the unforgettable red-and-blue “Hope” poster he designed for Barack Obama’s first presidential election. But Fairey had been disillusioned with his most famous subject much before his recent vandalising charges came to be. When the Occupy Wall Street movement was in full flight, Fairey released a modified version of his Hope poster, one that urged Obama to step in and make the Wall Street fat cats pay. 
And that is perhaps the moral that all artists must keep in mind when on election duty: art is about permanence while politics is about avoiding the same.  

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