Continuing our series on the link between art and politics, Beatrix Pitel from the Crick Centre caught up with the political activist and songwriter Billy Bragg during the Sheffield Tramlines Festival to discuss the political power of the music festival.
For over thirty years, Bragg has been using music as a tool for left wing political activism. He is the godfather of political music and now the organiser of the Left Field at Glastonbury which was established in 2002 with the slogan of ‘mixing pop and politics’. This year’s guests included Pussy Riot, Frank Turner, Cat Boyd and the Buzzcocks. During a chat backstage at Sheffield’s famous Leadmill music venue, Bragg explained that the Left Field brings together artists and activists with the aim of giving a political platform and forum to upcoming bands. ‘At the moment, politics isn’t very fashionable, so if you’re a young political band there isn’t really anywhere for you to play’. Bragg encourages the political speakers to stay at the festival for the whole weekend so that they can engage and mix with the musicians.
Music festivals have a long association with political resistance. Today, a growing feeling exists that the increasing size and commercialisation of the UK festival scene has weakened this relationship. However, despite its size, Glastonbury has retained some of its political clout. Bragg’s Left Field is radical because it brings professional politicians inside the festival gates. Tony Benn was a regular speaker, and this year’s guests included the former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the Green MEP, Molly Scott Cato. Bragg thinks that music festivals offer a viable space for political debate because of their open and liberal environment. ‘When people go to festivals they are open to lots of things, they eat weird things, they sleep in weird places and they buy strange hats. They are obviously a bit more open to doing things that they normally wouldn’t do.’ I agree with Bragg, I think festivals could be particularly good spaces for political engagement because of their tolerant and unprejudiced atmospheres. If people are open to new foods and hats couldn’t they be open to new ideas and opinions?
The Left Field doesn’t only recruit artists who are outwardly political in the same way as Bragg, he makes clear: ‘I don’t mean that capital P political’. Bragg is interested in artists that give a voice to younger generations, ‘I’m not expecting them to be writing “There is Power in a Union”, they’ve got their own perspective and truth to tell us.’ Martha, a four piece from Durham, and one of Bragg’s highlights from this year’s event, are a strong example of this. Glastonbury is a festival with an activist history and edge, giving money and space to the likes of Oxfam and Greenpeace. I asked Bragg if he thought the Left Field is preaching to the converted. And does it really have any impact or power? Bragg insists that it does. ‘Most of the people at Glastonbury are not converted…. I don’t recognise the preached to the converted idea. I think one of the important things that music does is it makes you feel as a member of the audience that you’re not the only person who cares about these issues’.
We discussed the changing nature of political participation and its supposed decline. I asked Bragg if he thought that people were less engaged in politics then they used to be. ‘No, that is not my perception. You’ve got to remember I’m Billy Bragg so people want to talk to me about politics all the time. The engagement, though, has moved online a bit more, so it’s a little bit harder to see it manifested.’ I wondered if he might suggest that we should be utilizing all big music festivals to increase political activism and participation. But Bragg believes that platforms like the Left Field would be incompatible with a festival that lacked an agenda of social change ‘it probably wouldn’t work at V, Reading or Leeds. It’s not just a matter of putting some politics in, it’s got to be conducive of it.’
To some extent I agree with Bragg, I’m not sure how successful a Left Field style space would be at a festival like V. However, I don’t think we should politically write off festivals that don’t include large quantities of tofu and gong therapy sessions (apparently they were all the rage at Glastonbury this year). There are aspects of most festivals which seem inherently valuable in terms of everyday politics. Festivals are temporary communities with their own rules, people survive the horror of uncleaned portaloos and unpredictable weather together. They offer us a chance to escape the pressures of daily life and work, on Saturday at the main stage of Sheffield’s Tramlines Festival people seemed relaxed, happy and free.
The potential of music festivals has been largely ignored by political scientists. Bragg and the Left Field offer an interesting and exciting example of what this potential could look like today. Much greater research is needed to explore how similar platforms could work and be utilized at other festivals. In order to do this I think we also need to try to establish and understand the everyday political value of these institutions of summer.
Beatrix Pitel is an undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield and an intern at the Crick Centre. She has recently undertaken a project focussing on music festivals as a potential avenue for political engagement.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.