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Meet The Florida Activists Making Sure Serving Time In Prison Won’t Stop Folks From Voting

Rodnika Cockroft is sick of working within a system that led to one in four people she knows unable to vote — so she’s changing it. Four years ago, when the 25-year-old Miami, Florida, local was in college, she began working with Dream Defenders, a black and brown youth-led organization dedicated to building a multiracial…

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Meet The Florida Activists Making Sure Serving Time In Prison Won’t Stop Folks From Voting

Rodnika Cockroft is sick of working within a system that led to one in four people she knows unable to vote — so she’s changing it.
Four years ago, when the 25-year-old Miami, Florida, local was in college, she began working with Dream Defenders, a black and brown youth-led organization dedicated to building a multiracial voting block and, as Cockroft put it, “putting the power in the hands of the people and centering people over corporations.” She worked with the group for two years while she attended school in Gainesville; when she was set to graduate, a member of the Defenders leadership told her they had a chapter in her hometown of Opa-locka, Florida.
“I was like, ‘I definitely don’t want to leave my city without seeing and creating change in it,’” Cockroft, a recipient of the 2019 MTV Leaders for Change grant, told MTV News. So she began leading organizing efforts in Northwest Miami-Dade to educate and empower people to vote for Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to returning citizens that have served time in the prison system.
The amendment allowed all free Floridians, except those convicted of murder or sex offenses, to cast their ballot. But it didn’t go into effect smoothly: after voters passed the amendment in November 2018, the Republican-controlled state Legislature signed into law a stipulation that meant anyone who was freed would have to pay off all of their court fines, fees, and restitution before they could vote.
“We’re talking about over a million people who have gone to jail,” Cockroft told MTV News. “They’re out in the street and they can’t vote. They had their rights stripped away from them and Florida, especially under Rick Scott’s tenure, just refused to restore people’s votes or their voting rights.”
While working on passing the Amendment, Cockroft discovered something about her friends and family: “I didn’t realize how many people in my life could not vote because of these nonviolent offenses,” she said.
So she fought specifically for them, too. MTV News sat down with Cockroft to talk about the difficulties of fighting against a system that has spent years garnering strength, the importance of voting in local and national elections, and why Florida will be such a crucial state in the upcoming 2020 election.
Courtesy of Rodnika Cockroft/@miami_dreamdefendersMTV News: What does Dream Defenders do?
Rodnika Cockroft: We just want to make sure that we are building power both on the local level and the electoral level because just talking about it in our communities is not enough and our state and our respective counties have the funds to make sure that our communities are safe in a way that is transformative. Not putting more police on the streets, but actually investing in infrastructure and schools, making sure that we have proper programming and things.
MTV News: Over the past four years that you’ve been working with Dream Defenders, you spent a lot of time working on Amendment 4. Why was that so important to you?
Cockroft: We’re talking about over a million people who have gone to jail. They’re out in the street and they can’t vote. They had their rights stripped away from them and Florida, especially under Rick Scott’s tenure, just refused to restore people’s votes or their voting rights.
That is also something that affects one in four black men across the state. It was like giving them the rights back was the biggest thing that we could do. Also, we’re still fighting this because our legislature’s terrible and they don’t want to give us things even when we win them. When we voted on Amendment 4, [we were] voting to restore the right for folks who have nonviolent felony offenses to vote. That was the end of it.
MTV News: But was it?
Cockroft: Overwhelmingly, [voters] said, “Okay, this is something I’d back.” … Then we [heard] from legislative session and they’re like, “Actually, it was too broad. It was too broad. Let’s add some conditions, making sure fines and fees are in there and you have to pay before you can have your rights restored.” Again, that’s another way to disenfranchise poor people who already don’t have it.
MTV News: Is that what you’re spending a lot of time fighting for right now?
Cockroft: We’re still doing that work and every chapter has their individual campaign that they want to work for. All of them are ways that we can help end mass incarceration in the state of Florida since Florida is the prison state.
MTV News: Why do you think dismantling that and making sure that folks do have voting access is imperative to protecting our democracy?
Cockroft: Everyone should be allowed the right to vote. Period. All of our lives are affected by who is in office and the legislation they push and what they decide to put the budget money into. It all affects our lives and no one should be barred from voting in the first place. That’s first.
Second, Florida [is] such an important state when we talk about elections in general, whether it be gubernatorial or national elections during the presidential elections. To have a million-plus people who have just been working towards getting their rights restored for decades on end, we have the power to… bring them into our organizations and fight for the things that we want and need because they know what it’s like to be disenfranchised… We’re definitely about to flip this state back blue.
MTV News: Do you think that Florida being such a purple state is one of the reasons it’s so important for young Florida voters, in particular youth voters, to get involved in voting and not just for presidential candidates but also for these local candidates?
Cockroft: That’s something that we definitely want to put emphasis on. We’ll be registering 15,000 folks to vote and we’re targeting young folks so that we can increase the percentage of young folks that are turning out because our futures are on the line, right? We don’t want these old people in power making decisions for a world that will not phase them one way or another.
We proved this past election that we care about elections outside of the presidential cycle. Florida had its largest turnout in a gubernatorial election ever last year, so we definitely want to put emphasis on bringing the youth out. I think we know more now more than ever how pivotal it is to vote in all elections.
MTV News: Can you tell me a little bit more about your efforts to register young people to vote?
Cockroft: On National Voter Registration Day, we’ll be walking our first set of folks that are going to be registering folks to vote. They’ll be in Miami-Dade and Broward County.
In Miami, we’re going to be doing a registration/presidential forum where we’ll be discussing where different candidates stand on race, immigration, prisons, and police. This is the first of a series of conversations that we’re going to have with our community, with young people about the people who are trying to get our votes and pushing them into voting in the primaries.
In 2016, I think a lot of young people learned, especially in certain states, “Whoa, we don’t really know much about how this voting process works. We thought that it was just, ‘Oh, I’m going to go vote. This is what it is, I show up. I vote.'” It’s like, no. You’ve got to make sure — especially in places where voter suppression happens, like in Florida — that you have all your information on your voter registration card on point, making sure that the address is on point, making sure you’re in the correct party, especially if they’re talking about voting in the primary. That’s what we’ll be doing over the next couple of… well, until 2020, really.
MTV News: What are you looking forward to that’s getting you excited about this fight?
Cockroft: I’m really looking forward to the voting drive that we’re going to do. I’m really looking forward to our voting guide, especially on the local level because those are some of the things that are going to affect us the most. Then outside of that, definitely looking forward to seeing these Democratic [presidential] candidates move a little bit more to the left because we don’t want anyone who’s going to go in and maintain the status quo. We really want someone who is going to challenge Donald Trump.
This is a nerve-wracking time but it’s also exciting because I know that we’re going to make sure that we get the outcome that we need and deserve as people.
MTV News: How do you think securing this grant from MTV News will help you, and Dream Defenders as a whole, accomplish those goals?
Cockroft: I think that this grant is going to help us get folks involved who are not able to get jobs, for example. When we’re talking about going out and registering folks to vote, the people who we want to lead the way are the people who are affected the most. We want to center the most different franchise people.
I think that this grant would definitely help us with making sure that we are having people who are still actively fighting to get their rights restored back get the work… I think this could help us give them some jobs and push them into registering folks to vote while we try to get them their rights as well. We’re going to win. Just know that we’re going to win.
This interview has been lightly edited for length.
Leaders for Change is an MTV grant program that invests in young people doing extraordinary work at the local level to advance voting access. From getting polling places on college campuses across Michigan to registering voters in Chicago jails to providing rides to the polls in Georgia, these young leaders are breaking down the barriers that make it hard to vote in their communities. 

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Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video

YouTube “We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.” That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic…

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Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video

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“We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.”
That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic refrain with clear gospel influences. It’s Monáe’s take on a contemporary protest song, a call for a political sea change, in the vein of, say, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Courtesy of Atlantic RecordsAnd on Tuesday (September), Monáe released a moving music video — or, as she calls it, an emotion picture — that solidified that message. The visual opens and closes with the singer walking along the beach in a beige trench coat and military cap. At times, she can be seen singing into a retro microphone before an American flag; in others, she moves through staged breakfast scenes, with a family reading through newspaper headlines as they mouth her lyrics. The visual flashes through archival and contemporary footage depicting inspirational figures past and present: Where one scene shows the model and activist Jillian Mercado at a photo shoot, another depicts a conversation with lifelong activist Angela Davis.
What rings true without is a hopeful cry for change and for equality, and a recognition of those who have been leading that fight for decades. Monáe wrote “Turntables” for the new Amazon Studios documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, that shines a light on voter suppression, particularly through the lens of Stacey Abrams’s failed bid for the Georgia governorship. “Right now, I am focused on turning the election in our favor,” Monáe told Entertainment Weekly, “and I hope this song can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work.”

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Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love

Getty Images/April Blum The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new? Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by…

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Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love

Getty Images/April Blum

The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new?
Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by genre and can include anything — it’s a snapshot of what’s on our minds and what sounds good. We’ll keep it fresh with the latest music, but expect a few oldies (but goodies) every once in a while, too. Get ready: The Bop Shop is now open for business.

St. Vincent ft. Yoshiki: “New York”

St. Vincent, the intuitive musical goddess that she is, must have sensed our collective need for another quarantine ballad. Enter “New York [Feat. Yoshiki],” a classical arrangement of the standout single from 2017’s Masseduction. An added string section courtesy of Yoshiki, a Japanese multi-instrumentalist, beautifully complements the song’s original piano instrumentals. What more can I say? “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love” just hits different in the middle of a pandemic. —Sam Manzella

Djo: “Keep Your Head Up”

Last year, Joe Keery (of Stranger Things fame) released a glossy solo album under the moniker Djo. It was titled Twenty Twenty, and its sparkling arrangements ended up being quite far removed from the overall vibe of 2020 the year, but who could fault him for his optimism? Keery has also long been a contributing member of Chicago psych band Post Animal, but Djo is simply Joe — and latest “Keep Your Head Up” feels like several Joes ripping open a vortex in the funk-time continuum. This is a groove, peppered with buzzy synths and icy falsetto and an honest-to-god sax part. It’s akin to Todd Terje doing Tame Impala, a lightheaded cocktail rush that feels both clubby and bedroom ambitious. Positively galactic. —Patrick Hosken

Mxmtoon ft. Carly Rae Jepsen: “OK On Your Own”

When Mxmtoon’s Maia said she recorded “OK On Your Own” for the girls and the gays, she wasn’t kidding. The mellow bedroom-pop bop soundtracks a journey of self-reflection after a breakup, complete with the soft ukulele instrumentals that put the 19-year-old singer-songwriter on the map. Is it revelatory? No, but with pop icon Carly Rae Jepsen lending her sugary-sweet vocals to the second verse, it doesn’t have to be. Now I’m just waiting for “Party for Two.” —Sam Manzella

Video Age: “Aerostar”

Pleasure Line, the third album from emerging indie pop quartet Video Age, delivers perfectly escapist ’80s new wave vibes for when you need to get outta 2020 for just a moment. “Aerostar” is its punchy center, a hip-twisting, shoulder-shuffling groove that delivers quirky robot dance commands (“Slide to the left, now! Shimmy to the right!”) over hoppin’ funk synths and a kickin’ drum machine. It all harkens to a simpler time, one where dance floors were actually a real thing. Oh, the ’80s! —Terron Moore

Ruel: “As Long As You Care”

About a year ago, Australian middle-part heartthrob Ruel told MTV News that for him, “songwriting is exaggerating to an extent.” On his latest, the technicolor, soulful “As Long As You Care,” his exaggeration is so seamless, you’d be forgiven for believing the 17-year-old is actually a time traveler. The neo-soul groove he rides propels everything upward, even as the sound cheekily looks backward. “As Long As You Care” has one amazing hook, coupled with sonic candy that makes his upcoming third EP, Bright Lights, Red Eyes (out October 23) one to watch. —Patrick Hosken

Alycia Bella ft. Boogie: “Cue the Sun”

Something magical happens two-and-a-half minutes into “Cue the Sun,” the exploratory new collab between striking R&B voice Alycia Bella and rapper Boogie. After piping in the aural equivalent of stage smoke via jazzy piano and gorgeous vocalizations — “It feel like being lost in the right direction” — Bella’s song enters a more sparkly realm for Boogie’s recitations. By the end, you’re lighter, like your mind’s been cleared of all the cobwebs. Cue the sun. —Patrick Hosken

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Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors

Ross Days It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case…

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Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors

Ross Days

It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case of the New York-based artist Michael Love Michael, who last month self-released their debut album XO, it’s simply not possible, in part because they do so much.
As the former culture editor at Paper magazine, the 32-year-old “Cancer-Leo cusp,” who grew up between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, crafted celebrated profiles of such disparate musicians as Paramore’s Hayley Williams and cyborg sensation Poppy, while also serving up weekly playlists packed with the best bops from Megan Thee Stallion, Yves Tumor, and beyond. One day, it seemed they were stomping a runway in New York in a leather tank top and a cherry pout for the queer designer Willie Norris; the next, they were escaping to a farm to study permaculture at an undisclosed location “out West.”
XO, by design, rejects easy categorization. The collection, which was produced in under a year in collaboration with Michael’s longtime creative partner Rich Dasilva, fluctuates dramatically between glittering power-pop — as on the synth-heavy “6 Jaguars,” which dissolves at the bridge into a biting rap (“They call me bitch if they don’t like me… Does that tell you who I’m voting for, honey?”) — and lush, emotional ballads. Michael’s voice boasts a similarly wide range, whether as a groaning whisper in a spoken-sung segment closing “The Hatred,” or as a looping, crystalline falsetto as they perform as their own backup singer on “Blueberry.”
Their first comprehensive artistic statement, Michael tells MTV News, was intended to dispel any notion of essentialization, particularly as a Black, nonbinary artist making their mark in the industry (in June, they left Paper, citing its treatment of its Black staffers). “I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way of me saying that I have multitudes,” they say. “I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person. And I’m also fierce.”
Ross DaysMTV News: Did you record XO while you were on the farm, or was that all done before?
Michael: I basically worked on it from April until late July, so there was part of it that was finished here, but most of it was done during quarantine in New York, four or five tracks. I started recording my vocals on my iPhone and my computer, and I’m really happy with how it all turned out, because, at least in my opinion, none of it sounds like it was done at home. It has a uniformity, and it sounds kind of expansive in a lot of ways.
MTV News: I really connected with the song “Blueberry,” and there was this sound on it that reminded me almost of a dulcimer, though I couldn’t quite make it out. Given that much of it was produced at home, was there a lot of live instrumentation on this?
Michael: So there’s acoustic guitar, there’s whistling, there are actual finger snaps, and then the rest is electronic. So then there’s kind of the 808 bass drone and there’s that sound, which is like a fake electronic guitar. But I’m glad you like “Blueberry.” “Blueberry” is very, very sweet and comes from a sad place.
MTV News: Would you tell me about it?
Michael: OK, so “Blueberry” is about an unrequited love. When I was a teenager, I had this really intense crush on this guy who was closeted and involved with this girl as a way to kind of conceal, as we all do when we’re going through that journey. But we always had a connection, and it was very kind of the teenage lust kind of factor. And then, after high school, he went to the Iraq War and died.
There are lines about going off to war but also being brave and being who you are. There’s this line about purple hearts beating wild with red, red blood — the idea of a Purple Heart for bravery, while also referencing the bravery it requires to be out as yourself. There’s also the idea that both of us are sacrificing something, my jealousy and my self-reflection, and the blueberry gates became a place I would go in my mind when I would think of him. I wanted to find a way to talk about having a closeted relationship full of young lust and love, and to speak about what’s involved when two people sacrifice parts of themselves to make things work that can’t work, ultimately.
MTV News: What are some other songs on the album that feel special for you?
Michael: This is almost like my second coming out, as an artist and sharing my music with everybody. Even though I’ve been making music since I was 16, I’ve never actually had the courage until now to release anything. “XO” is my favorite track, because that’s the thesis of the project. It’s about overcoming some of my own personal demons to love myself enough to realize I had something to share and something to say, like a love letter to a damaged former self.
“Mother’s Day” is another one that I really love, because it’s kind of strange and cryptic. This one is more about people’s relationship to all things maternal, how you have to be a reciprocal give-and-take dynamic with whatever those things are, whether that’s the earth, someone you look up to who is a femme person or a mother figure. It has echoes of my own relationship with my mother and my grandmother. There’s a line about planting a garden — “Every Mother’s Day, I plant a garden for you / Every Mother’s Day, I water your flowers that bloom” — and that was something I used to do for my grandmother as a kid.
MTV News: Do you have a good relationship with your mom and your grandmother?
Michael: With my grandmother, yes. With my mother, that’s something that’s very much in process. It’s a tricky song. It’s really complex, obviously. But I love it for that reason, and I love that I feel like I’m learning how to be really good at writing about things that are personal broader and nuanced ways. I can be descriptive and I can also not be descriptive, and all of it’s intentional. It kind of reminds me of a St. Vincent, Brian Eno vibe. It feels kind of stompy, crunchy, stadium rock or something.

MTV News: What made now feel like a good time to release an album and share this project?
Michael: It was something that I didn’t intend to happen. I was happy with just having some demo recordings and maybe an EP released on SoundCloud, and then I had friends who really encouraged me to think bigger. Also, I had my own aspirations that I buried because I was trying to be realistic and I was trying to hold down full-time jobs and I was trying to be sort of a traditional careerist, and it’s just like, no bitch. Don’t dull your own shine, don’t gaslight yourself just because society gaslights you.
And so, that’s what kind of really motivated me to kind of come out with it all, and I just feel really grateful for the ability to have unlocked this avenue of creativity. Even for this to happening, for us to be talking about my album for MTV is fucking cool. Everything is luxury now, I just get so excited about everything else because creativity begets more creativity. So I don’t take any of it for granted, it’s so fucking cool.
MTV News: Yeah, I can really relate with feeling vulnerable in sharing something creative. 
Michael: This is an exercise in proving something to myself. I really do believe, if you see something missing and you have the capacity to provide or be that missing link, then do that. If you feel empowered and you feel like you can and you have the resources and the energy, do that. Where queer voices are sort of becoming less and less marginalized, people want to hear what it is we have to say. Remember that there are so many people who fought and died for so much of the freedom that I and many of us take for granted. Part of being a person with a voice and sharing it is also being in service to your ancestors who came before you.
MTV News: In listening to XO as a whole, there are songs that are very soft and almost indie-leaning in a way, and then you also have these songs that are very fierce and very hard. I wondered what your intention was, or were you expressing different sides of yourself?
Michael: Well, I love that you picked up on the contrast, because that was the exact point. I definitely wanted to present duality. It’s an introduction to me as a musician and, hopefully, if there ever were any expectations, it surprises, maybe it shocks. Maybe it’s exactly what people expect — I have no fucking idea. I called it XO because I thought of X-O as sort of an expression of contrast, because it’s like hugs and kisses are sort of opposite things, but then so is the idea of being open and being closed.
I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way saying that I have multitudes. I’m a complex, fully realized human being. So it was important for me to show a hard edge and a softer, gentler side, because at the end of the day, I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person, and I’m also fierce. The Cancer-Leo cusp is really that, it’s very that.

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