Documentarian Lee Hirsch fought against apartheid in South Africa while he was in high school in Putney, Vermont. Through his work, he came to understand the stakes surrounding politics and that if one doesn’t participate, they can’t make an impact, he said. It’s why Hirsch has always voted in presidential elections—because he recognizes the importance of it, he said.
“I’ve always been frustrated by how young people aren’t taking this seriously because they don’t exercise their voting rights nearly as often or as aggressively as they should. There’s too much work to be done, there’s too many people suffering, even before COVID-19,” Hirsch told the Mississippi Free Press.
During Barack Obama’s run in 2007, Hirsch created Local Voices, a Democratic Super PAC whose aim is to pull generic messages from political advertisements. Hirsch said they target low- and middle-income voters on the conservative spectrum, he said.
“When we did ads, what people said was often so much more interesting and so much more authentic than anything we could have created or written. Just by giving it some polish and bringing our filmmaking talents to it, we were able to elevate what they had to say,” he said.
This year marks Local Voices’ fourth election cycle. Hirsch has added a new program to his roster where political advertising and social media collide. Fearless Messengers, which launched Oct. 13, allows Tik Tokers to produce creative political advertisements to get voters to the polls. This campaign is targeted to young voters in swing states, Hirsch said.
“Like so many other people during lockdown, I discovered Tik Tok,” Hirsch told the Mississippi Free Press. “I started seeing all this amazing work that people were doing that I thought was super awesome. These people are making stuff every day that’s awesome and sharp in terms of politically savvy messaging.”
“Why would I make something for millennials when somebody who’s directly inside that group is trying to speak to their own community?” he added.
Hirsch and Theresa Schwartzman, who is leading the program, find Tik Tokers whose content they like, and she gets in contact with them. From there, they explain the program and if Tik Tokers are interested, they sign them up for the program, he said.
“With some creators, we’re able to say could you make a piece that’s a little shorter or a little more implicit in terms of a get out and vote message,” Hirsch said. “Some listen to that, and some just say, ‘I’m going to do what I’m going to do’ and ‘you’re free to use it.’ It’s different with each creator, and it’s really just the strength of the relationship that’s being built.”
Editors then look over the content, an end card is added at the end that either says “Go Vote” or displays candidate names, and they decide if they want to put dollars behind the content to turn it into an advertisement.
Fearless Messengers is using its resources to endorse Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and any Tik Tokers who partner with them this election cycle are also supporting Biden’s campaign.
“We’re placing these ads largely inside games, so that’s kind of new for us. Some are being placed inside Snapchat. We’re also releasing them through social media and sending them to partners and asking them to push it out,” Hirsch said.
Jackson comedian Rita Brent is a Tik Toker who is collaborating with Fearless Messengers., Hirch discovered her on his Tik Tok For You page. She is a comedian and musician and a U.S. Army veteran.
Brent got her start in comedy in 2013 at the Sweet 601 on Terry Road, a capital-city venue that is now closed. She was featured on season 2 of comedian Kevin Hart’s show “Hart of the City” on Comedy Central.
She has opened for comics such as Sheryl Underwood and Bill Bellamy and has had television appearances on shows like “Laff Mobb’s Laff Tracks,” accumulating more than 4 million views. Jacksonians might also recognize her as the face of Patty Peck Honda car dealership commercials. She writes and films five to six commercials a month for the company.
Brent performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in New York, and the publication Thrillist named her the “Best Undiscovered Comedian in Mississippi” in 2018.
“I’ve learned a little more about Rita, and I’ve realized what kind of hometown hero she is in Jackson. It’s really exciting to have her on board,” Hirsch said.
Brent said she didn’t realize the importance of voting until she entered her late 20s. After a visit to Medgar Evers’ house in Jackson, where a white supremacist killed him in 1963, she learned that the civil-rights hero was murdered due to his efforts to get Black people registered to vote.
“Well, to me, that says that voting is absolutely powerful, and you had so many people on the frontlines for civil rights and voting rights, and they were willing to give their lives for it. That alone says to me that it’s important,” Brent told the Mississippi Free Press. “It’s my responsibility to vote. It’s the least I can do for the folks that came before me and that lost their lives.”
Fearless Messengers’ political stance is what made Brent say yes to coming on board, Brent said. She’s even created a song called “Donald Trump Is a Racist.”
“I am always open to using my creative platform to invoke change, so if that’s voting, of course I’ll do voting-related material. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s whatever will get Trump out of office,” the comedian said.
‘Do It For Your Ancestors’
Brent has created a song called “Kamala” that she wrote following the announcement that Harris would be Biden’s pick for vice president. Brent came back to her hometown of Jackson to film the video, which was shot by photographer and videographer Sean Banks Utica.
The video has more than 100,000 views on Tik Tok, and Brent has been performing the song at virtual Zoom events. Recently, she released another video, “Your Vote Matters,” letting audiences know to get out and vote because their vote and voice are important.
The reception to Brent’s videos have been positive, with some people even taking her “Kamala” video to create duet performances. However, she has gotten some backlash for her public support of the Democratic Party, she said.
“I get called names and all kinds of things, but I just learn to let that roll off my back because they don’t know me, so I’m not going to give them any attention or power. For me, it just makes me want to go harder,” Brent said.
Tik Tok also has its share of Donald Trump and “MAGA” supporters, some of whom said recently that they understood the president’s pledge to shut down Tik Tok. Wired Magazine reported in August that Air Force veteran and Mississippian Christopher Townsend is a 29-year-old Black Republican hip-hop artist with more than 540,000 followers on TikTok. Should Trump have succeeded in blocking Tik Tok, Townsend told Wired he could live with it. “It is what it is, some platforms just disappear,” he said.
Lee Hirsch said he believes that everyone Local Voices works with is a fearless messenger due to the risk they take in putting themselves out there and speaking out.
Whether that’s doing a Tik Tok and running the risk of someone coming at them or their family or in our stuff that we film, some of these people are living in really conservative areas. People know them, and we’ve had people get threats, lose business and really suffer consequences for speaking out,” he said.
Brent now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., but she is often back in Mississippi.
“Just get out and vote. I know this is a challenging time for people with the pandemic, and people may be a little apathetic and worried, but just know that this is a transformative election,” Brent said. “Do it for your ancestors and to improve the future of not just yourself, but for others around you.”
Fearless Messengers will run until Election Day, which is Nov. 3. To learn more about Local Voices, visit its website here. To follow the Fearless Messengers voter campaign, you can visit the Local Voices’ Tik Tok page here. Keep up with Rita Brent across all social media platforms @ritabrentcomedy.