Rocking The Cynical World
In the mid-1990s, when Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter, was looking for someone to set some of her father’s unpublished lyrics to music, she passed over the obvious choices—such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Woody’s old traveling companion, Pete Seeger. She turned instead to British icon Billy Bragg, who emerged from the London punk movement in the late 1970s and has since become synonymous with political songwriting. Mermaid Avenue, Bragg’s Grammy-nominated collaboration with Nora Guthrie and the band Wilco, rocketed him into the American music scene.
It’s not hard to see parallels between Bragg and Woody Guthrie—their poetry, politics, and irreverence. Bragg knows how to capture the zeitgeist, and his songwriting and activism are as relevant to today’s predicaments—soaring economic inequality, Tea Parties, Glenn Beck, and racism—as Guthrie’s were to the Great Depression.
Now 52 years old, Bragg grew up in a community hit hard by economic crisis, the working-class borough of Barking and Dagenham, near London. He became a political activist after attending a rally in 1978 for Rock Against Racism, an antiracism movement led by pop and punk bands like The Clash. Bragg’s background allows him to cut through the divisive politics of race and immigration and speak plainly to audiences about social issues. In the last several years, Bragg has used his influence and panache to campaign against anti-immigration politicians in his hometown.
On a damp Sunday in September, I watched Bragg perform to a crowd of young and old fans at Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot arts festival. Earlier that weekend, a YES! photographer and I met him at a coffee shop. He was milder and more personable than I had expected, smiling at us as if we were old friends. I asked him to explain how a singer can help change an election, reach millions of young people, and use music to fight the fear and cynicism that is undermining the democratic process in both of our countries.
Billy Bragg: I feel it’s my job to remind the audience that only they can change the world. If people just come to my gigs, buy T-shirts, and think they’ve done their bit, that’s the worst kind of hypocrisy on my part. My job is to bring them together in a space where they feel that they’re not the only person who gives a sh*t about an issue. And they go away thinking, “Yeah! I had a sense of community!”
YES! Readers Speak Up:
How do you combat cynicism in yourself?
One of the first political things I ever did was Rock Against Racism. Before that, I felt my political views were in the minority. Where I was employed, there was a lot of casual racism. I was the youngest person and the only one who found it offensive. In that Clash crowd, I saw a hundred thousand kids just like me. I realized racism was the issue on which my generation was going to take a stand.
The Clash got me there, but it was the crowd that empowered me.
The song has a part to play—it gives you a different perspective of your position in the struggle and your view of the world. But it’s what we do when we go back to our communities that makes a difference.
Ostrander: You recently campaigned against politicians in your hometown who were using race and immigration to inflame the public. Does it ever feel discouraging that these issues are so cyclical?
Bragg: No, as long as there’s a new generation coming in to fight, you’ve got to pass the torch. When we marched for Rock Against Racism, we were part of a tradition that stretches back to the activists of the 1960s who were out on the streets, to our parents and grandparents who defended London against the Nazis in the 1940s, the people from our country who fought in the Spanish Civil War against fascism, all the way back to the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. Our job is to pass that information on, to not be discouraged. We’re not the first people to have fought the struggle, and usually we win. The other side has their high points but eventually, we get ’em, and we usually get ’em with our music and our culture.
Ostrander: What was so significant about the victory against the British National Party in your hometown this summer?
When ten thousand miles away some guy clicked on a mouse
He didn’t know me, we never spoke,
He didn’t ask my opinion or
canvass for my vote
I guess it’s true, nobody cares
’Til those petrol bombs come spinning through the air
Gotta find a way to hold them to account
Before they find a way to snuff our voices out
Can you hear us? Are you listening?
No power without accountability!
—from the song, “NPWA,” on England, Half English, Cooking Vinyl, 2002
Bragg: My hometown [the borough of Barking and Dagenham] is probably the most industrial borough in southeast England. When I left school, the car plant employed about 40,000 people in a borough of 150,000. And over the last 15 years or so, employment at that plant has dropped to about 3,000 people. There’s no work. But the housing prices in our borough are the lowest around London, so there’s an influx of people and huge pressure on housing, schools, and doctors’ waiting lists. Twenty years ago, the borough was 98 percent white. Now whites make up below 80 percent.
The British National Party is a proper fascist party; they’re not just right-wing nut cases. Their leader, Nick Griffin, has cast doubt on the veracity of the Holocaust. They read the same census report that I did, probably, and targeted our borough. They started saying, “Can’t get your roof fixed? Can’t see the doctor? It’s these immigrants.” In 2006, out of nowhere, Barking elected 12 councilors from the British National Party.
All of the sudden, my hometown was called the racist capital of Britain. But the only difference between my hometown and anywhere else is that Barking has these bastards knocking on doors, turning people’s genuine concerns into racism.
This summer, there was an election for the local council, and the British National Party expected to win 12 seats, which would have given them control of schools, the allocation of housing, and a £750 million budget.
I was out there with groups such as Unite Against Fascism and Hope Not Hate, knocking on doors, singing a few songs when people broke for lunch at work, and stuff like that. The incredible thing was the number of young people involved, because in the last ten years, a lot of the anti-racism activists have been old Clash fans like me—gray-haired geezers with tattoos.
When results were announced, not only did the BNP fail to win any more seats, they lost every seat they had. They were wiped out of the local council. That’s a real tribute to the young people who came out in such great numbers—proof that your actions have meaning. But you can’t just sing about it; you have to actually go and do it until it happens.
Ostrander: How do you talk to—or sing to—someone who doesn’t share your political views?
Bragg: Well, you have to talk to them about the implications of electing a party that is such a pariah. It’s not a protest vote anymore. And I think the cynicism that the BNP relied on failed them this time.
It turns out that the white, working-class people of Barking and Dagenham are not racist. This year, when they looked into the face of the British National Party and realized who they were, they threw them out. I’m quite encouraged by that, because if they can’t pick up votes in a place like Barking and Dagenham, they’ve had it as an electoral force.