Why It's Naive to Think Musicians Should Keep Out of Politics
How protesters and bands at London's anti-Theresa May protest felt about the "stick to the tunes" view.
Wolf Alice's Ellie Rowsell at the Not One Day More protest. All photos by Chris Bethell
We all know how the line goes: teens and young millennials are believed to be largely politically apathetic. Too busy on our phones or buying avocados and whatever else to engage with national and local elections. But: fuck that. Though we don't have official figures yet on youth turnout in June's general election, the sense is that it was the youth wot swung it away from a Conservative majority.
Since then, there's been a crackle of energy in the air – uniting young voters and increasingly vocal musicians in a way that hasn't been seen in a generation. Take Glastonbury for example: a record turnout of people took to the Pyramid Stage on Saturday afternoon, to see a politician talk. Chants of "Ohhh Je-re-my Cooor-byn" rang out across the field and twenty-somethings openly weeped. Later that night Stormzy encouraged a similar sing-along on the Other Stage.
On Saturday the coalition of music, youth and politics took another step forward, as political initiative The People's Assembly called a central London protest against Theresa May's government – an event featuring a prominent musical line-up performing alongside the usual speakers. Kicking things off, Wolf Alice introduced activist and Guardian columnist Owen Jones after an electric rendition of "Seven Nation Army" – the crowd shouting Corbyn's name over the top, naturally. Peace's set followed a heart-wrenching speech about the public sector workers involved in the aftermath of the Grenfell tower blaze.
A glance at the poster might make you think the event was principally a gig, based on typeface size, but every young person I saw was as engaged for the speeches as they were for their favourite bangers. This may not just be the start of a collaborative movement between musicians and politicians, but the start of a political party you can all dance along to. I headed down to photograph the day and ask both musicians who'd played and protesters who marched how they'd respond to the idea that musicians should "stick to the tunes" and stay out of politics.
Ellie Rowsell, 24, Wolf Alice frontwoman
Yeah I've had a lot of people express that opinion to me – and not just about politics but anything outside of music. A lot of people say to 'just stick to music' and I think that's a really awful message to relay. If anything, it pushes me further to get involved in other things or issues. I think I have looked, and always will look, towards the people that I admire to help form my own opinion. This is sometimes more helpful than going to the standard media outlets these days. And if I project my opinions, then hopefully one day someone trying to form their opinions can maybe be influenced by what i'm doing or what many other musicians are doing.
Isaac Holman, 25, Slaves frontman/drummer
I think that idea is bollocks. You've got a voice, you've got a platform: you should 100 percent use it. You can speak to a lot of people – and not just on stage but by social media. You can connect with a lot of people and you should definitely do that.
Ash Darling, 18 and Amy Barnard, 22
Ash: I don't think they should stay out at all. I think they should be involved as possible. Obviously their fanbase might see what they're doing and if their fans aren't already somehow politically engaged then they will hopefully get involved.
Amy: Everything is political, isn't it? So of course musicians should be involved in politics.
Ash: It's the best way to try and bring the youth into politics.
Theo Ellis, 25, Wolf Alice bassist
That is complete bollocks. Musicians are humans as well and politics is for everyone. Literally just now, it was so moving to be able to play at this rally. I mean, obviously people are not just here to see a couple of fucking indie bands but it was very moving to see people coming out and kids being engaged in what we're doing. It's just important to use your platform for anything you believe in.
Noor Namutebi, 16; Cosob Awil, 17 and Firdowsa Abdulle, 16
Noor: Musicians reach a lot of people and a lot of people need to know what's happening in politics, so I think that's important.
Cosob: I think politicising music is a great thing as they need to use their platform to help the movement grow.
Firdowsa: Yeah I agree with both – you have that audience.
Noor: There have been huge examples in the past that have caused a lot of change – what was that one? Band Aid! It was about poverty and world hunger, it helped so many people out across the world. The whole grime4corbyn thing this year as well, that really engaged a lot of people our age. I've seen people go out to vote just because of the musicians involved in promoting that.
Harry Koisser, 26, Peace frontman
I think it's total bollocks to say musicians should keep out of politics, obviously. I think hindsight will shine a big white light over this period of time and that by being in a band and involving yourself as heavily as you can, you will end up stainless. It feels like the start of a movement because everyone involved are newer bands; there are no dinosaurs here, it's a fresh crop. Everyone doesn't see the stigma that used to be attached to it in the 90s or whenever. I've been throwing out my email address today to activists and campaigners everywhere. We got into this really last minute but we've done loads of stuff before with helping refugees. It's a big conversation and it's great that more people are getting involved.
See the rest of Chris's photos from Saturday below:
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