June 22, 2024

Last September, the rapper Killer Mike was DJing hip-hop classics like Snoop Dogg’s Ain’t No Fun at a music festival afterparty in Louisville, Kentucky. “The inspiration for the night’s set is freedom of speech, so say what the fuck you want!” he told a crowd of hundreds. Killer Mike, half of the duo Run the Jewels, is known for speaking out against police brutality and racial injustice, as well as campaigning for Bernie Sanders.

But this night’s set was co-sponsored by Stand Together Music, an organization backed by the libertarian billionaire Charles Koch, who made his fortune in fossil fuels. Other sponsors of the party included the free-speech group Fire (which has received millions of dollars in contributions from the Charles G Koch charitable foundation), as well as the music outlet Spin, an official partner of Stand Together Music.

Why would Killer Mike associate himself with an 88-year-old political powerbroker whose network has given hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative causes? Researchers who track the network say it’s possible that the rapper, who is not listed as a partner of the group, didn’t know his set was linked to Koch.

“It shows how sneaky and successful Stand Together Music has been at generating collaboration with artists who I don’t think share the value sets of Charles Koch,” said Connor Gibson, a former Greenpeace researcher who now runs the site Grassrootbeer Investigations.

This organization is expanding its influence as Koch, whose brother David died in 2019, is thinking about how he wants the public to remember him. Stand Together Music is part of a wider conservative advocacy network that is promoting “Charles Koch’s principles-based legacy”. Stand Together Music itself was founded by Koch’s son Chase, who says as a child he had to listen to “books on tape by Milton Friedman”. Turned on to music in his teenage years by Pink Floyd, he’s now a 46-year-old guitarist who plays in multiple bands and will reportedly inherit 42% control of Koch Industries when his father dies.

But Stand Together Music is more than just a wealthy, middle-aged heir’s pet project. Gibson and other critics claim it allows Koch and his allies to co-opt pop musicians, young music fans and other hard-to-reach constituencies into a conservative political movement whose ultimate aims include dismantling the government’s ability to regulate polluting corporations like Koch Industries.

Stand Together Music, which appears to have launched in 2022, lists as its official partners the likes of the pop-punk rapper Machine Gun Kelly, the electronic duo the Chainsmokers and the Miami rapper Pitbull. “The result is that these musicians are being used to launder the reputation of Koch Industries, whether they know it or not,” said Gibson.

On a section of its website devoted to “free speech and peace”, the organization features an interview filmed earlier this year with Tom Morello, the former guitarist for Rage Against the Machine. “Watch him discuss how RATM has made a career of speaking out about the issues they care about,” the site explains.

It’s a bizarrely generic way to describe Rage Against the Machine’s politics. Morello has aligned himself with leftist causes like Occupy Wall Street and freeing the Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier from prison, as well as assailing capitalism’s role in “the impending environmental crisis”. So it might seem odd that he’s being championed by a music organization linked to a conglomerate that owns oil refineries, pipelines and petrochemical facilities and is a top greenhouse gas polluter in the US.

Representatives for Machine Gun Kelly, the Chainsmokers, Pitbull and Tom Morello did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

In a statement sent after this story was first published, Stand Together Music said it was “honored to partner with incredible musicians who share our passion for solving problems holding people back” and that music brought people together in “today’s polarized world”.

It added: “The artists we work with have the ability to elevate meaningful solutions to problems like addiction, criminal justice, mental health by getting involved with incredible nonprofits around the country.”

Charles Koch, with a net worth of about $60bn, is among the top 25 richest people in the world. For decades, he and his late brother David used their immense wealth to fight environmental regulations and pull US politics to the right. From 1997 to 2018, they gave more than $145m to conservative groups, such as the Manhattan Institute, that have a record of attacking climate solutions and denying that a climate emergency exists, according to Greenpeace calculations. The Kochs founded the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which in the late 2000s played a lead role in catalyzing the Tea Party, a populist movement that elected dozens of hard-right Republicans to Congress and arguably helped create the conditions for Donald Trump to be elected president in 2016.

This sprawling political operation was previously coordinated under an umbrella group called the Seminar Network (referred to by some critics as the “Kochtopus”). Its organizers cited as a major accomplishment pushing the Trump administration to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, according to private documents obtained by the Intercept and Documented.

But Koch publicly feuded with Trump on issues such as the Muslim ban. And during Trump’s presidency, he renamed his network of rich donors, political influence groups and conservative advocacy operations Stand Together. This organization then began making charitable contributions to groups working on issues with modest bipartisan support, like criminal justice reform, poverty and addiction, with Koch signaling in 2019 at a gathering of supporters in Palm Springs that he wanted to move away from partisan politics.

How much Koch actually meant that is debatable. One of Stand Together’s members continues to be Americans for Prosperity, which during the 2020 election spent nearly $48m to help Republican candidates, according to the watchdog group Open Secrets; it spent an additional $69m during the 2022 election cycle. Supporting bipartisan social causes while helping elect Republicans is all part of the same political strategy, said Lisa Graves, executive director of the watchdog organization True North Research.

She cited as an example Koch’s support for a sentencing reform bill known as the First Step Act, which was signed into law by Trump in 2019. That year, Americans for Prosperity went on tour with a Black man named Marshall Charles who was released from prison due to the law. Charles spoke at a Black church in Wisconsin, a state where Americans for Prosperity subsequently mailed nearly 2m flyers supporting the 2022 re-election campaign of the Republican senator Ron Johnson. “What they got out of [the criminal justice reform bill] was some access into the African American community, which advances their political game,” Graves said.

To her this illustrates a key organizing principle of the Koch network – that it’s designed to appeal to, and enlist support from, as many distinct identity groups as possible. Another member of Stand Together is the Libre Initiative, which has given out free Thanksgiving turkeys in Latino communities and then asked people to fill out questionnaires with their political beliefs and contact information. There are Stand Together groups that reach out to veterans, concerned parents, K-12 educators, professors and early-stage entrepreneurs. And now, with the launch of Stand Together Music, the Koch network is targeting music fans.

Before founding the organization, Chase apparently struggled to find a place in his father’s business and political empire. After giving up his dream of being a professional tennis player at 15, Chase took his first job with Koch Industries. He told Forbes that his dad “shipped me away to our cattle feed yard in Syracuse, Kansas, to shovel cow shit and dig post-holes. That was quite an adjustment from the country club.”

Chase was in 2014 asked to run Koch Industries’ entire fertilizer business, but the pressure of overseeing thousands of employees in 30 countries was apparently not a good fit and he fired himself after nine months. Several years later, he founded a venture capital group within the company and in his free time began playing in a band called Memento Mori with John Hardin, a Stand Together board member who had previously worked in golf course design and construction. Chase formed a second band, 2ŁØT, with the former drummer for Chance the Rapper. “I had just been through a divorce, so I was going through a lot myself,” Chase told Forbes. “So we said, ‘Hey, let’s just play music together.’”

Chase then apparently parlayed his musical connections into a new organization serving the goals of his billionaire father. One of Stand Together Music’s first major ventures involved sponsoring in 2022 an ongoing music series at a new 10,000-seat sports and concert arena in Palm Springs. Brian Hooks, chairman and chief executive of Stand Together and longtime ally of Koch, posted about the news on LinkedIn: “Together, we’ll bring in artists and songs that can fuel movements to help transform how the country tackles our biggest challenges.”

Stand Together Music has since then partnered with the Chainsmokers and the sobriety organizations 1 Million Strong and the Phoenix for a “sober-supportive concert” in Berkeley, co-sponsored an “alcohol-free space” at the Lana Del Rey-headlined Newport Folk Festival and presented a panel discussion about trauma and healing in Black communities called “Stand Together Music Presents: Heal America” at a music festival in Park City.

Critics say the banality of these causes is the point: who doesn’t support helping people with addiction and healing America? But Graves said such events give the Koch network entrée into music festivals and hip-hop afterparties that aren’t exactly strongholds for Koch’s brand of free-market ideology, while creating opportunities to sign up younger voters.

The broader Stand Together network is meanwhile pursuing its more nakedly self-interested goals. At a 2022 panel discussion, video of which was previously shared with and reported on by the Guardian, strategists said they were quietly supporting cases before the US supreme court intended to overturn a legal doctrine known as the Chevron deference, which would weaken the power of federal agencies to craft regulations. That could make it harder for the US government to fight the climate crisis. “You won’t see them actually directly litigating on that case,” one panelist said of an advocacy organization funded by Stand Together. “But they’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes.”

Critics say all the tentacles of Stand Together ultimately serve the same master. The network is trying to hollow out the regulatory state while getting Killer Mike to play fun free-speech parties that make Koch look like he’s beyond politics. The musicians working with Stand Together Music, whether conscious of it or not, are “aiding a billionaire who has been devastating to American democracy and to efforts to deal with climate change”, Graves said. “It’s disappointing that these artists would fall pretty to the Koch spin machine and give it any credibility.”

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