From the Streets to the Stage: Bartees Cox on Using Music to Bridge the Advocacy Gap

By Sameer Rao Aug 03, 2017

Bartees Cox

City: Brooklyn, NY

Movement: Co-director of communications for Climate Nexus, an environmental justice organization bridging media and policy strategies to fight climate change; previously the Federal Communications Commission‘s deputy press secretary

Music: Singer and guitarist of Stay Inside, a melodic emo and punk band that tackles social injustice on its new EP, "As You Were"

Story: Bartees Cox’s strict Christian upbringing in tiny Yukon, Oklahoma, prevented him from learning about rock until his teens. It took coming across El Paso’s predominantly Brown quintet At the Drive-In to turn him on to the genre. "I thought, ‘Man, these Latino kids are from nowhere, just like I’m from nowhere,’" he explains. "That was my introduction to hard rock music—I didn’t know at the time that it was really something just White boys did."

He grew up primarily around rural, country-loving White people and learned guitar so that he could play with those musicians. "That’s how you could make money, if you could play and keep up with the old guys," he says. "Oklahoma didn’t have the budding music scene that it might have now."

Cox joined an acquaintance’s punk band while attending college in southern Kansas on a football scholarship. He kept his blissful ignorance of rock’s race dynamics for only a little while, eventually realizing that the group "was a legit Neo-Nazi punk band." "I went to one of those high schools that didn’t talk about slavery," he explains about not initially grasping the band’s context. "My understanding of how I was supposed to act around White people was totally different than how it is now. I kept my head down."

Confronting the weight of that experience, Cox immediately left that band, and Kansas, for home, playing in other hard rock bands while studying journalism at University of Oklahoma. But music took a backseat when he moved to Washington D.C. after graduation to intern with media justice organizations Free Press and Public Knowledge, the latter of which he later joined as a staffer. "I fell in love with the people leading the movement, and it was very diverse," he says about his earliest professional experiences. But the precarious life of a D.C. intern forced him to take a hiatus from music and sell "every instrument I had" to pay bills.

He channeled his passions into a stint as the Federal Communications Commission’s deputy press secretary, where he developed messaging around public protections like the 2015 net neutrality order. "I was really excited about the prospect of being a lobbyist or media relations director," he says. "But I realized that I wasn’t as happy, even at what I thought the ‘top’ was, without music. So I moved to New York and started a band."

That band is Stay Inside, which boasts a majority person-of-color line-up and features Cox at the front. He remains passionate about media work, which he’s brought to his current position at Climate Nexus. "So few people of color work on this issue, and it impacts them so much more disproportionately than anyone else," he says. "I would rather I be in the room than [an organization] hiring another White man to do that job."

Cox ultimately hopes to make music a full-time concern, bringing his other professional ideals into what he creates even more than he already does. "The challenge I feel working on national, broad-sweeping issues is that you get to a point that you feel like you’re losing touch with the people you want to help," he explains. "Something about playing a show and really connecting with the people in that room makes me feel like I’m saying something that someone’s hearing."

Listen to "As You Were" below, and look out for Bartees’ upcoming solo record, "Magic Boy," on September 23: