Music Festivals Are Inherently Political Now – And That’s A Good Thing

Some of the most popular music festivals in the UK and beyond, from Glastonbury and Afropunk to Brainchild and Boomtown, have become increasingly politically orientated over the last few years. But what does it mean to be political at a festival these days anyway?

Music Festivals Are Inherently Political Now - And That's A Good Thing

by Bridget Minamore |
Published on

With their thumping basslines and party atmosphere, music festivals are notorious for the escapism they provide—particularly for young people who consider themselves politically minded. However as festival season winds down for another year, the political climate is as fraught as it was at the end of spring. Brexit negotiations (or non-negotiations) continue, Trump’s White House is as fractured as ever, and autumn beckons the end of Parliamentary recess and a fresh start for the Tories’ coalition with the DUP. For many, festivals and the closed-off world they provide can offer a chance to switch off from the seemingly never-ending political stresses of the day to day.

For 27-year-old Londoner and regular festival goer Georgie, who has been a part of various feminist activist groups, festivals are 'like [an] escape from the boring, mundane routine of everyday life. We see people cover their faces in glitter, wearing elaborate clothes, staying up all through the night, and taking drugs—stuff they might not do normally outside the festival walls. Festivals have become a safe space to explore a more creative, extravagant and confident side of yourself. People turn their phones off, switch off from the real world and fully engulf themselves in this "other world" (one that is different, more exciting, anti-rules, anti-establishment, anti-normality) for the weekend'. But do festivals always allow punters to exist in a depoliticised bubble? Not all the time.

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Over the past couple of years, music festivals of all sizes have become more and more political: from the food they serve and the artists they book, to the conversations they hope to promote and the people they invite to speak. At Boomtown, the reggae and ska-heavy line-up is a common political talking point, as are their 100% compost toilets (used to reduce the ecological impact of portaloos). Last year, Shambala similarly made waves by making the entire festival meat-free for environmental reasons—they also have compost loos, alongside high targets when it comes to recycling and waste reduction. Meanwhile Secret Garden Party—which bowed out of the festival game this summer after 10 years—has taken a stand against the consumerist aspect of music festivals; on their website it states they 'have never exposed our guests to sponsorship, advertising, brand activation or VIP areas'. At larger, more family-focused festivals like Latitude and Greenbelt, festivalgoers can find dedicated stages for talks and workshops that have a political edge.

Perhaps the most overtly political act at a festival this summer was at Glastonbury, the Somerset-based mega fest that sees over 130,000 people battle for tickets every year. Essentially the size of an English town, Glastonbury becomes a small, self-sufficient world. Within this world, they have banned the sale of Native American headdresses (citing discussions around cultural appropriation), and curate the Left Field, a space entirely dedicated to left wing music, panels, and talks. In 2016 the Left Field became a platform to discuss the European Union referendum that took place during the event—as well as promote the organisers’ Remain stance. When it was eventually revealed the UK did vote for Brexit, Left Field was 'quickly converted into a triage station for those shocked by the ramifications '.

At this year’s festival however, the discourse moved from the Left Field and onto the famous Glastonbury main stage. Riding high off an election result that saw the Labour Party make gains across the country—although, not enough gains to oust the Conservatives from power—Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke to thousands of revelers. While festivals are generally known for having a left wing ethos, a music event aligning itself with a political party still felt like a big deal to a lot of people. To others, Corbyn’s appearance was simply music festivals going back to their political roots. In the 1960s, festivals like the iconic Woodstock were known for their anti-capitalist, anti-war stances, and were widely seen as cornerstones of counterculture. Today, festivals don’t have quite the same reputation. Going to sleep in a tent for a weekend is not particularly radical when so many do it, and raving or drug taking aren’t political in and of themselves. The growing commercialisation of festivals is a huge part of this; protesting capitalism whilst drinking out of branded cups can ring hollow.

What does it mean to be political at a festival, anyway? Glastonbury might be left wing but the festival is still populated by a very white, very middle class audience. Can you really call yourself political if you’re space is devoid of people from marginalised groups? Speaking to Georgie, it was clear that the politics of festivals are something that is often on her mind—despite how much fun she might be having. 'I feel that music is inherently political. Reggae and grime for example—they originate from black people that talk openly about issues that relate to black, working class struggle, police brutality and the need to "stand up and fight for your rights". I believe that if you have a festival that centralises more radical music forms then you are going to attract a more political crowd. From my experience, pop music, house, techno, and even indie festivals do not attract as much of a political crowd for this reason.'

She continued: 'I also think being politically engaged has become fashionable for our generation. For example, over the course of the election we saw a whole host of grime artists come out in support of Corbyn. We saw people wearing branded Corbyn sports clothing, and a night started up called "Grime4 Corbyn". It was like being left wing was suddenly really cool and if you wanted to be down with all your favourite grime artists then you had to come out and be vocal about your support for Corbz.' But when it comes to the importance of festivals trying to be more political, she was clear: 'yeah, for me? It’s important. Unless the music was really, really great, I don't think I'd head to one of those ones anymore.'

For some contemporary festivals however, politics are part of their DNA. There are dozens of gay and lesbian specific festivals across Europe and the United States, and New York international export Afropunk has long attempted to carve out a safe space for people of colour (alongside proudly displayed posters saying 'no' to sexism, transphobia, and ableism, amongst other things). However while it’s one thing to create a festival that aims to be a safe space, it’s another thing entirely to restructure your festival in an attempt to make it safer. After 23 sexual assaults and four rapes, this year Sweden’s largest pop festival Bravalla announced the cancellation of next year’s event, with a women-only event planned in its place. Closer to home, Brainchild—a grassroots festival that has won the AIM Award for Best Independent Festival for the last two years and was started by uni students in 2012—prides itself on its political ethos.

Brainchild’s 24-year-old Festival Director Marina Blake told me: 'I think that a lot of what mainstream media and events demand of you is mindless consumption. Given the opportunity, young people are actually desperate to do something with more value, or just something that's different. Festivals can be a very liberating landscape for fresh conversation and real human interaction, and when we consider how much young people are just communicating online—where conversation about anything meaningful is pretty hard work, and it's much easier just to "like" something than express yourself—it's not surprising that there's an increase in appetite for political conversation at festivals.'

Marina added: 'at Brainchild we're interested in asking the big questions that we think are on the minds of our audience—from mental health, to success, to the housing crisis or climate change. Secondly, engagement is built into the whole format of the festival. Talks aren't often panels, but instead are led discussions, encouraging everyone in the room to get involved and listen to each other. Stages have lengthy jam sessions or can become open mics, and impromptu making workshops can happen at the shop: these are all ways that we intend to open people up and get them engaged with each other.'

As the millennial generation squares up with a political landscape that feels new and overwhelming, it’s no wonder the consumerism and excess of music festivals is become counteracted with attempts to engage audiences politically. The question we should be asking ourselves is not if festivals are getting more political, or even how, but more what the outcome will be. How far does this political engagement really last? We haven’t got an answer yet, but for now all we can hope is that these conversations are having an impact, making a difference and have the potential to put in place real, lasting change.

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Follow Bridget on Twitter @BridgetMinamore

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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