‘I’m speaking up': Why EDM’s Zedd organized an all-star benefit for the ACLU

Zedd and Incubus
Incubus members Mike Einziger, left, and Brandon Boyd, right, with Zedd at Zedd’s home in Los Angeles.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Pop Music Critic

Zedd’s upcoming benefit concert at Staples Center started with a tweet.

The 27-year-old electronic music star — who was born Anton Zaslavski in Russia, grew up in Germany and now lives in Los Angeles — was on the road in January when President Donald Trump announced his controversial ban on travel from seven countries with predominately Muslim populations.

As a proud immigrant himself, Zedd said, he has deep misgivings about restricting access to the United States. Yet it was the travel ban’s chaotic rollout that especially troubled him.

“It wasn’t even double-checked by anybody,” said the musician, known for his production work for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga and his own thumping stadium-rave tracks including the top-10 pop hit “Clarity.”


“It felt like Trump just wanted to do it, so he did it without even making sure it was legal.”

The dance scene in which Zedd has flourished is often regarded as a place for escapism, not activism. But as he read news about the executive order, Zedd fired up Twitter and wrote to several artists, saying he wanted to organize a show to raise money for the American Civil Liberties Union, which quickly went to work fighting the travel ban on the basis that it was religiously motivated.

“Everybody started hitting me back: ‘Yeah, that’s a cool idea,’” he said. “So I called my agent and was like, ‘Let’s book Staples Center — get the next available date.’ And that’s what we got.”

Scheduled for April 3 at the downtown arena, the concert — called “Welcome!” — will feature performances by Zedd and his fellow DJ Skrillex along with a variety of high-profile pop, rock and hip-hop acts, including Macklemore, Halsey, Tinashe, Imagine Dragons, Miguel, Camila Cabello and veteran SoCal group Incubus.


Tickets, which top out at nearly $250, aren’t cheap. And the lineup has attracted scorn from tastemakers who say it leans too mainstream. But Zedd said those criticisms are missing the point of an event he hopes will raise at least $1 million for the ACLU after expenses. (The artists, he said, are playing for free.)

I wanted it to be a big message, and I think the bigger you go and the more familiar people are with every element of it, the more the message will spread.”

“I wanted it to be a big message, and I think the bigger you go and the more familiar people are with every element of it, the more the message will spread,” he said on a recent afternoon at his sleek, glass-walled home in the Hollywood Hills.

Seated on a couch next to Brandon Boyd and Mike Einziger of Incubus, Zedd said the idea he wants to get across is that Trump’s travel restrictions — both the original and revised executive orders have since been blocked by judges — unfairly target peaceful immigrants and refugees drawn to the U.S. for the same reason he was.

“Most people are not coming here to cause problems,” Einziger said. “They’re just looking for a good life. And this sense of nationalism really bothers me: ‘We’re America — get out of our country!’”

“It’s a little bit like the forest is on fire,” said Boyd, “and we’re pulling the drawbridge up so nobody else can come in. Sure, it sounds good to say we should take care of our own first. But we’ve heard that before, and we kind of know how it ends.”

Some might say that as musicians you should keep your political opinions to yourself.

Boyd: I’ve never understood that one. I understand the notion of escapism — of wanting to be entertained and not think about politics for a minute. But that view almost tries to negate the fact that this person is also a citizen and a taxpayer and has a life outside their work. If you have a platform, why wouldn’t you express your opinion?


Einziger: That’s the basis of democracy.

Zedd: People who have a platform are the ones who should not be shy of saying what they believe. And not saying it because you’re afraid of losing half your fan base is just wrong to me. I’m not saying all my fans should buy a ticket for this show if they don’t think I’m right. Everybody can have their own opinion. But I also have one, and I’m speaking up.

“Most people are not coming here to cause problems,” Einziger says.
"Most people are not coming here to cause problems," Einziger says.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In previous generations people often looked to rock stars to address the issues of the day. Is that a part of fame in dance music?

Zedd: I don’t think people are necessarily as outspoken in my world as they should be. But you have a responsibility whether you signed up for it or not.

Take Facebook and all this fake news. Originally they were like, “Well, we’re not writing any of these stories — people publish them.” But they can’t just look away. Of course people will be more interested in the crazy facts that aren’t real that draw people to click on something. Facebook has the power to say that something that’s clearly wrong shouldn’t get as much attention or interaction as something that’s true.

Isn’t that the problem, though? No one agrees on what’s true anymore.

Boyd: It’s a real impasse. We can’t actually go any further until we agree on some very simple views of reality. Does two plus two equal four? Is the sun currently shining?


Einziger: We should do a concert to raise awareness for facts.

Zedd: This war on social media where both sides just bash each other — has that always been the case in America, or did this hatred start with Trump?

Boyd: It’s always been there, but something happened when Trump ran for president. He emboldened a political minority, and the beast was unleashed.

Zedd: I don’t have that understanding at all because I’ve spent the majority of my time here in L.A., where most of my friends have very similar opinions. I live in a bubble. But I don’t think every person who voted for Trump is a racist. I think a lot of them are sick of how things were and just wanted change.

Boyd: There are also people who are loyal to the Republican Party for certain party platform reasons. My father is one of them. He’s been a fiscal conservative his whole life, and he hated Trump when he first came out. But then he started to understand that Trump was going to hold true to certain party lines, and he voted for him. And I have a hard time talking to my pop about it. At a certain point it comes down to a question of morality, in my opinion.

Yes, I understand that your independent business could potentially do better at the end of each year under some of these changes to the tax code. But what about the bragging about sexual assault? What about the racism and the blatant xenophobia? What about the demonization of the other? He’s really able to look past these things. So it’s a tough one. There’s a part of me that understands why, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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