Aging With Attitude: Lil Mema, AKA Abby Cohen


“I can pretend that I’m dead by sitting on my butt and complaining that my knees hurt, or I can ask what I can contribute to the world.”

When Abby Cohen told her daughter she was making calls to get out the vote, her daughter said “boring” and suggested she could do better. For example, she could make a video.

Not every 79-year-old grandma of ten has what it takes to be a YouTube rapper, but Cohen, a retired psychology professor, had something to say and her daughter, Mary Jo Smith, was well positioned to help her say it. Smith, a film producer and actress, is a creative director at ABC TV.

Cohen was on board with the idea — with one requirement: She wanted her message to be bipartisan. Her mission was voter turnout regardless of political leaning. 

When Smith mentioned their project to a friend, musician, composer and music producer Markaholic, he offered to help. So Cohen and her daughter wrote the lyrics, Markaholic set them to music and recorded Cohen at his studio, and now “Lil Mema” is making her case on YouTube with “V.O.T.E Vote!” 

Cohen spoke with us by phone from Los Angeles, where she splits her time between a son and his wife and their three kids, and a daughter and her fiancé and their dogs — “screaming and barking.”

What motivated you to go ahead with the video project?

My ten grandkids. I’m very passionate about ensuring that my grandkids have a future worthy of them. They’re ages eight to 15, and for their sakes I worried what our democracy will be like 20 years from now. I felt there was an intersection of anger and frustration in our country about the way government operates. I’m a retired psychologist. I wondered whether there’s a connection between the anger Americans are experiencing and the fact that half of us don’t go to the polls. I strongly felt that if you want what you want, then you need to speak up. The way we speak up is by going to the polls.

It started when I told my daughter that next weekend, “I’m making phone calls for Hillary.” She said, “You’re calling people at dinner who aren’t interested, let’s think of something more creative.” So we came up with grandma doing a rap video.

Why a rap video?

I decided a rap video would engage people and hopefully get them to vote.

We are the 31 in 35 developed countries in the number that go to the polls. In my research, I found people don’t vote either because they don’t like the candidates, or because it takes too much time. We are a democracy, government for and by people, which means you have to make your voice heard, but our voting system doesn’t encourage participation. In California, for instance, you get a huge book about what’s on the ballot and no one can understand it. Ballot initiatives are worded deceptively to influence voters.

When I went to school in Brooklyn we had civics classes. We’re not being educated anymore to be responsible citizens.

Have you always been politically active?

I live with an autoimmune disease that limits me. When I was first diagnosed, I fell into playing the age card — that I was too old to do anything meaningful with my life. Then I thought, what the hell am I doing? I’ve got a lot of life left. I’m going to make my voice heard.

I’ve volunteered to get out the vote since 2000, when the Gore–Bush thing happened. Before that, I was single mom of five kids and didn’t have much extra time. Having grown up with grandparents in the South and living in an era when I dealt with outright segregation, I was very tuned in to Obama’s nomination. That was a wow for me! Now we have a woman, which I never thought would happen.

But I’ve never done anything like this in my life.

You wanted the message to be bipartisan. Why?

I wanted to convey the message that even if you don’t like the candidates, there are still issues that may matter to you. Even if you think, why vote because so and so is going to win anyway, what about the school board, city council, referendums, ballot initiatives? Those are important, too.

What’s next?

We’re in the process of translating the rap lyrics into Spanish to get that community out to vote. We’re trying to get a major TV show, like Ellen, to air the video.

What does aging with attitude mean to you?

Put away the age card. I’m not dead. I can pretend that I’m dead by sitting on my butt and complaining that my knees hurt or I’m too tired, or I can look out the window and ask what I can contribute to the world. I look at my grandkids and think, this is another day I have to make a better future for them.  

I kvetched when I got this autoimmune illness and I never thought I’d live this long. My parents died before 65. I was born in 1937. By the time 2000 came and I was still here, I asked myself, how can I make a difference? How can I serve?

Share this and help get out the vote!


9 responses to “Aging With Attitude: Lil Mema, AKA Abby Cohen

  1. This is my first time visiting this site. I figured it would be a good place to visit frequently as I am not gracefully accepting of the label “senior” (I could write a book on that topic but will try hard to stick to the point of this comment). In reading the comments I noticed admiration, support, kindness, hostility, and perhaps some knit picking. I found myself reflecting on three important ____ (can’t think of the word/s at the moment and when it/they comes/come to me a few lines from now I shall leave it blank in hopes that it will serve to make a point): 1) “Education is the acquisition of knowledge.” I am a retired sixth grade teacher who after 6 ¾ years of “encouraged” retirement still misses the kids and the joy of sharing learning with them. 2) “Ignorance is the lack of knowledge.” We are all ignorant about something but not stupid. The difference might be that when you are aware of a particular ignorance (you can’t fix something unless you know it is broken), you make an effort to learn about it. I visited both Google and Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary multiple times while reading the comments. 3) You are what is between your ears, i.e. your brain. My body is the package that carries me, my brain, around. I have just a little problem accepting that my package is labeled senior, but pray I fight to the end to never let myself, my brain, become a senior.

    In sixth grade my students and I worked on critical thinking, inferences, voice (both in reading and writing), purpose, interpreting author’s meaning, presentation, etc., etc., etc.. If you reread the following it will become clear that Cohen’s purpose was to encourage all people to vote and to understand the power of a vote (regardless of how each of us feels about a vote). “Cohen was on board with the idea — with one requirement: She wanted her message to be BIPARTISAN. Her mission was voter turnout regardless of political leaning. ”

    In the United Stated most people, if asked, would say we have a democratic government even if we know we are a republic. At this particular moment in my life I must ask myself if that is more significant than practicing some of the wisdom I like to share with others… NEVER TYPE MORE WITHOUT SAVING THAN YOU ARE WILLING TO RETYPE!? The above was saved to a word processor and that was smart. The rest is gone and my dog needs food so I will leave it at that. If you knew me as all of my students did/do you would ask about the words that follow the word republic. Was I being sarcastic, facetious, humorous, or just plain making a joke ( I know those words are synonyms. Just attempting to eliminate a critical comment. :-( )? Yes, a smile is a nice thing to share. Because this comment is well after the fact, I suspect the previous commenters won’t see this, but my point is there are positive ways to be critical and read more carefully. Being nice to other does not cost anything.

  2. We’re a Republic, honey! Didn’t you learn that in your civics class? How could you rap for Crooked Hillary and her rapist husband? I’d draw the line at that one. Rap another one and knock her for recounting the votes. We all know that Trump won. Wake up, honey!

  3. When I was 21, the first time I was eligible to vote in Massachusetts in 1968, I voted for presidential candidate Dick Gregory (for those semi-idiots who think the first Black candidates were Shirley Chisolm or Jesse Jackson). In virtually every city, state or Federal election since I voted… up to 2000 or 2002. I voted independent, Democrat, Republican or otherwise based on who I thought the best candidate for the job was. NONE of the people I voted for (usually men at that time) ever won! Zero. Nobody. Regardless of party. Of course, the trick is I voted in primaries and if there were several candidates and my choice lost, WHY am I going to waste my vote on somebody else I did not want in the first place ? In either 2000 or 2002 I really had my moment of truth when the GOP AND the Democrats both by fiat not only refused to let candidate Ralph Nader be in on the debate but actually had him threatened with arrest if he moved any closer physically than he was to the U/ Mass – Boston campus the night of Al Gore and Bush #1 or Bush #2’s debate: and THIS was with him holding a legitimate ticket to SIT IN THE AUDIENCE, people! Now if “the venerable party of Lincoln” and the “venerable party of FDR and JFK” can “eff” with an internationally renowned white Harvard lawyer who’s holding a genuine ticket to just sit in the audience –and make it stick — what are they able & willing to do to ordinary working class, working poor or whatever mere humans who live here ?! The answer is whatever the hell they want: nationally, statewide or city-wide. Moreover, on the Federal level, elections are NOT won by whomever gets the most # of votes but rather by the electoral college system (which is why they talk about some states being more important than others in the contest). Mercifully, insofar as environmental, school, fiscal, etc. issues I do not have children or grandchildren to be affected. And whatsoever causes I believe in, I do not count on anyone in government to right the wrongs but rather I seek to work with people or groups directly concerned. If you really think government will move to improve laws, regs, processes etc. than what about the many times you learn the members of Congress, the FDA, the CDC , EPA, USDA and a host of other entities are bought and paid for by lobbyists & big business ? Too many people suffered and died for the right to vote to have had it prostituted so badly over the past generations. And even the semi-beloved Pres. Obama got $650 – $675 MILLION to fund his first presidential campaign. This automatically means he — or anyone else so well funded — is beholden first, last & always to the people, groups and corporations which gave him that kind of serious money. Do what you want to, voters, but don’t lie to yourselves or anyone else that your voice really truly matters to the big shots or those who finance them. Read “The Buying of the President” amongst other documents.

  4. Aging with attitude is one thing. Aging with wrong attitude is another.

    If this woman worries about the democracy shouldn’t be making phone calls for a crooked politician like Hillary . It doesn’t make any sense!

    Aging means getting smarter old lady.

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