The musician recently filmed a series of public service announcements for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio aimed at engaging young voters

Prior to the pandemic taking root in Ohio, Sarob was in a good creative place. Just months earlier, the musician had released his latest album, Fear & Impermanence, and he was ready to spend parts of the early spring recording features, filming music videos and playing shows in cities such as Detroit and Washington D.C.

“But then I had to cancel an L.A. flight the week of the pandemic, and literally the day [Gov. Mike] DeWine said we had to shut down, I was supposed to play a show at Natalie’s,” Sarob said by phone in mid-October. “So I was discouraged, but more than being discouraged it was like, ‘I’ve gotta find something to do, because if I’m not playing shows right now, and I don’t feel I have another album in me yet, then I have to find something meaningful to do.’”

Eventually, Sarob struck up a partnership with the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO), releasing the single “Pleasures U Like,” with all proceeds going directly to the organization. In the run up to the election, Sarob again teamed with COHHIO for a series of public service announcements aimed at increasing voter turnout, particularly among young people. In one conversational video, the musician speaks directly to those who might feel cut out of the political process. “For me, as a young person and as a Black man, a lot of the time I feel discouraged, but here is a serious opportunity,” he says. “Here we can fight for issues that matter to us right now, and that are going to matter more moving forward.”

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“There was a time there when I definitely had a ‘tear down everything’ attitude, and in some ways I still feel like we need to evolve, or revolutionize things. But as far as feeling discouraged, yeah, there was a three-month stretch there where, I mean, I’m very familiar with Black people being murdered by the police. I have friends who have been victims of police violence. When I lived in German Village, I had police pull me over and ask if I lived there, which is police violence. So this isn’t new to me. But there was a three-month stretch there where it was like boom, boom, boom: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. And then even more people beyond that,” Sarob said. “I was like, man, I don’t even know if the political system was built for people like me. I don’t think it’s built to represent me. And that’s how I felt. Then my temperature calmed down and sort of plateaued a bit, and I started looking at some of the people who were making these decisions, and they didn’t represent me. … If you look at some of the people in power making these calls, they can be voted out, which is great. Or they were appointed by someone who can be voted out. These things are possible if we pay attention to the tools we have.”

Sarob has long embraced a personal philosophy adapted from a Pharcyde lyric — do something that means something — though he occasionally struggles with the idea that his status as musician should grant him any kind of platform. 

“Over the course of the past several months I got back into my philosophy mode, which is what I studied in college, and because I have that background it leads me to think: Who am I? Who cares? If I say something, does it even matter? Does it serve anyone beyond myself? Am I doing anything beyond affirmation or validation or visibility?” he said. “And anytime I do that, I know it’s not going to satisfy my mission, and it’s not going to satisfy me as a person.”

It’s a conflict that has only intensified in the COVID era, where social media posts can often play like appeals for the kind of attention many are lacking amid mandated social distancing. “We’re not getting the physical affirmations that we used to get, so there’s a whole lot of people jumping up and down, waving their hands, which you can tell from the amount of throwback photos posted, like, ‘Oh, I miss when this was a thing,’” Sarob said, and laughed.

Regardless, the musician acknowledged that he has an audience to which he can speak on election issues, though he’s determined to approach it from a more personal level — less a lecture from some perceived podium than elbowing up aside like-minded contemporaries. (Along those lines, Sarob said he recently held meetings with Cleveland’s WesWill and Columbus rapper TrigNO, hoping to recruit them to make similarly spirited PSAs speaking to their respective audiences.)

“We’re trying to uncover every stone and reach people, and it’s not even about guiding them to a candidate. It’s like, 'Yo, here’s where you can find information and choose for yourself,' and I feel like that’s one of the more democratic things you can do,” Sarob said. “I don’t even try to pretend I’m on an elevated plane. … People want to hear the truth. They want to hear a message that resonates with them. I’m like, look, this is what I’ve experienced. I get extremely discouraged. I get frustrated. And I know that a lot of people think voting isn’t the only answer, which it’s absolutely not. I’m not even going to lie to you. I’m going to continue to do the things that I think are needed in society, like resistance and trying to build up society, and that’s not just going to happen by putting certain candidates in place. But it does make a difference.”