Politics back on centre stage at this year’s Glastonbury

If ever there were concerns that today’s music festivals have strayed too far from their political roots, this year’s Glastonbury has laid them to rest with one of the most politically charged editions of the festival in years.

Glastonbury has always possessed an undercurrent of political activism to go with the musical acts, something encouraged by its founder and one-time Labour Party candidate Michael Eavis.

Yet with the days of the free-love movement and anti-Thatcher punk a distant memory, the modern music festival economy has been critiqued for supporting the very commercial, corporate agenda it once defied.

But this year, at what is billed as “the largest greenfield music and performing arts festival in the world”, there was plenty of proof on offer that that protest and debate are still alive and well.

Peace and Palestine

Before the music even began, festival goers broke the world record for the largest human peace sign. Some 15,000 gathered at the Stone Circle — a sacred festival space — to send “a message of peace to the world” in the wake of the country’s recent terrorist attacks and the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower.

Things were not always so harmonious.

As Radiohead made their way onto the festival’s Pyramid (main) stage on Friday night, Palestinian flags emerged from the throngs and calls to “free Palestine” competed with Thom Yorke’s vocals.

“We want to talk to Thom Yorke,” demanded Toby Marshall, as he brandished a large Palestinian flag. “Glastonbury is an opportunity to tell the world about Palestine,” explained Marshall, who works for the Palestine Museum Bristol.

Radiohead are scheduled to complete its summer tour on 19 July in Tel Aviv. While the band have played in Israel in the past, this would be their first show since the 2005 launch of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS). Many have called for the band to cancel, including anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, American activist Alice Walker, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. Yorke countered back, saying it would deepen divisions. But many at Glastonbury appeared unconvinced, with flags continuing to appear throughout the weekend.

For their part, Radiohead mocked British Prime Minister Theresa May, changing song lyrics and telling the British Prime Minister to shut the door on her way out.

Corbyn an ‘inspiration’

And then there was this year’s political headliner, Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose popularity has continued to soar following May’s embarrassing performance in the June 8 snap general election that cost her Conservative party their majority.

As he introduced the American hip hop group Run the Jewels — who stumped for Bernie Sanders during his US presidential campaign in 2016 — Corbyn was greeted by a crowd of tens of thousands, rivaling those usually seen for the festival’s headliners.

In a speech delivered from the Pyramid stage, he decried poverty, Donald Trump and the ramifications of Brexit.

The crowd went wild when he quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “The Mask of Anarchy’ a nineteenth century rallying cry for nonviolent resistance.

“He is just an absolute inspiration. I’ve been coming to Glastonbury since the 80s, and Glastonbury has always been political. So, it’s the natural place for him to be. But it does feel this year like everyone has woken up,” Claire Cook, 45, told FRANCE 24.

Corbyn then made his way to Leftfield, the festival’s dedicated space for activism that Eavis started when he raised funds for the Campaign on Nuclear Disarmament and in the midst the famous miners strike under Thatcher in the 1980s.

Beneath the sprawling tent, musician and left-wing activist Billy Bragg’s protest songs about gender inequality, capitalism, and the refugee crisis were translated into sign language.

“I’ve seen more political stuff this year than ever. This year, the whole festival is like Leftfield,” said Anneka Sutcliffe, 29.

“You wouldn’t get any conservative politicians at Glastonbury. It felt like [those of us on the left] were in a bubble. But now actually you see that there are many more of us than we thought,” she added.

Preaching to the converted

When he walked onstage, Corbyn was greeted with chants of “Ohhh Jer-e-my Cor-byn,” set to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.

It was an anthem heard all weekend.

The Labour leader’s speech was lively and charged with human rights and socialist values, promising festival goers that, together, they would challenge “people who tell us how to think” and defeat inequalities.

The themes resonated with those who say their concerns have been forgotten by UK politicians.

“We’re from a really deprived area in Teesside, and I think he speaks to the people that may think politics hasn’t got anything to do for them, and to promote actually a party that cares for everyone,” said Katherine Baxendale, 32.

Teesside is a manufacturing region in northern England that, until recently, carried the unwanted tag of Britain’s unemployment capital.

“It was probably preaching to the converted but it was really good to hear him engage with us,” added Nikki Scott, 29.

Not everyone was so thrilled with the political wave sweeping the festival this year, however.

“It feels forced. It’s like preaching. I think the majority of people are here just to enjoy the music. We’re here for the music and seeing friends,” Ben Smith, 24, told FRANCE 24.

‘Non-violent curries’

It is, of course, hard to please everyone and one of Glastonbury’s points of pride is that it caters to an incredibly diverse crowd of some 200,000 people. Unlike some festivals, it can often be tough to pin down the culture at Glastonbury, which attracts ravers and hippies, children and elderly, music fans and cinephiles.

Major musical acts like Foo Fighters, Ed Sheeran, Solange, Ani DiFranco are balanced with film, performing arts and small acoustic bands. There are also areas like the Healing Fields, a space offering donation-based massage, spiritual guidance, reiki, and fortune telling. Glastonbury is a veritable city that emerges on a 900-acre farm site in the midst of a small village in southwest England. It even has its very own newspaper.

Still, it was hard to escape the political fervour that took root this year.

Posters shouted “Power to the people”, while massive archways told festival goers to “Resist” and “Rise Up”. Bright and colourful signs condemned political inaction, and even food stands joined in: Ghandi’s Flip-Flop offered “non-violent curries for the civilly disobedient” and a Greenpeace cafe served up organic juices adjacent to a space protesting forest deforestation.

And while the political highlight of the weekend was undoubtedly Corbyn’s debut, politicians including his right-hand man John McDonnell coasted on his energy well into Sunday afternoon’s debate entitled: “Is Democracy Broken?”

Given the charged political climate in Britain right now, it would seem that a more politicised Glastonbury is inevitable.

And some, including the festival’s founder, would argue that is very much a good thing.

“I think it [the festival] could well become more political,” Eavis predicted back in 2011 in an interview with The Guardian.

“We’ve always been a sounding board for lots of unrest…it [politics] gives Glastonbury soul and gives it back its purpose.”

Date created : 2017-06-26

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