“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.
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?
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