Why are big festivals like Glastonbury so white? | Stephanie Phillips


JHere are some things you can count on during a British summer: two or three days of sunshine, an afternoon spent cooking sausages in crispy sauce at a barbecue with friends, and the cultural ubiquity of music festivals. .

Pitching a tent in a field to watch some of music’s biggest acts is a British institution, but not one for all communities – as actor and entertainer Lenny Henry recently pointed out. In an interview with the Radio Times, Henry commented on the lack of integration at UK festivals. “It’s interesting to watch Glastonbury and watch the audience and not see any black people there,” Henry said, adding: “I’m always surprised at the lack of black and brown faces at festivals. I think , ‘Wow, it’s still a mainstream culture thing.’ »

I’m a guitarist in a black feminist punk band called Big Joanie and I usually spend most of my summer in the back of a van traveling from festival to festival playing shows. I will be playing at Glastonbury this week. Over the years I’ve seen every festival in every corner of this country and Henry is right – it’s a strange (and often disorienting) world to navigate as a black artist.

It is important. It matters because Glastonbury is a central and famous part of British culture and its whiteness reflects how little communities of color are taken into account when we define ‘Britishness’.

There are so many reasons why people of color don’t attend large-scale outdoor camping festivals like Glastonbury. There’s the obvious excuse that traditionally blacks and browns don’t camp and are put off by the grim reality of festival campsites and the outdoors in general. It’s a stereotype that many people in marginalized communities are working to break, whether through country hiking initiatives such as Black Girls Hike or the London-based outdoor group We Go Outside Too. Birmingham.

More importantly, people of color in these spaces have been made to feel at best an afterthought, or at worst unwelcome. We still remember Noel Gallagher’s comments about rapper Jay-Z headlining the Pyramid stage in 2008, describing hip-hop in Glastonbury as “fake”. The racial undertones of his comment evoked an unpleasant feeling that many people in the black community already had: that Glastonbury was a space for ‘rock’ music (read: white people) and that everyone should sit quietly in a corner or get out.

Glastonbury has since worked to correct this narrative and invited more hip-hop, R&B and grime artists. A big moment for Britain’s black community came in 2019 when rapper Stormzy headlined the Pyramid scene. Speaking in a BBC Two documentary about the festival, Glastonbury organizer Emily Eavis said Stormzy represented the black community and her inclusion was “a bit late perhaps”.

Stormzy’s performance was a milestone, but his celebration obscured the true story of the first black British band to headline the Pyramid stage: alternative rock band Skunk Anansie, fronted by black queer singer Skin, in 1999 The erasure suggests that the Black community is still seen as a monolith listening to grime and hip-hop, and leaves little room for the breadth and history of Black British artists.

It should be noted that urban festivals based in ethnically diverse areas tend to have a more mixed audience. In my experience, East London’s Lovebox Festival and Manchester’s Parklife Festival regularly attract diverse audiences, a trend which is also reflected in their lineups. More than half of the performers at the 2019 Lovebox event were black, while this month’s Parklife festival featured headliners such as Grammy-winning American rapper Tyler, the Creator.

Beyond these big stages, there are also smaller DIY initiatives in the UK and overseas to bring more people of color into the arts by curating spaces that focus on them. I’m part of the collective behind a London-based festival called Decolonise Fest, which celebrates people of color in the punk scene. Our audience is overwhelmingly people of color and I think we’re able to achieve that because we’re seen as part of the community we serve, rather than creating space and achieving years more late that we might have excluded people.

The lack of diversity at music festivals is not an isolated issue but rather an indication of the state of the arts and culture sector in the UK. The 2020 Arts Council England Diversity Report found that just 11% of staff at organizations it funded were non-white.

Since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, there have been a slew of initiatives and statements focused on diversity and inclusion in the arts. While virtually every organization has made its statement and pledged to do what it can to improve its diversity numbers, there is little in place to ensure they are making the changes that they agreed.

Glastonbury’s 2022 lineup appears to reflect a need to reach new audiences, with artists popular in black and brown communities such as rapper Megan Thee Stallion, Afrobeats star Burna Boy and American rapper Kendrick Lamar, who will be headlining the Park Stage on Sunday. .

But it will take time for people of color to feel truly welcome at festivals. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but I hope that, summer after summer, we begin to see the audiences of arts and cultural spaces such as Glastonbury better reflect the country we all want to live in.

  • Stephanie Phillips is a musician and arts and cultural journalist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at [email protected]


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