It’s a damp August Sunday afternoon at Greenbelt* 2018. I’m on duty, wearing a Hi-Viz coat in an attempt to keep warm and dry but it also makes me instantly accessible to the festival goers. As I approach the main stage an older woman comes towards me and states…
“My friends will never believe me!”
I think I know what she is referring to as from the stage there is a pounding punk protest against Putin. Erratic imagery flashes on a giant screen behind bizarrely balaclava-ed dancing dissidents, singing sub-titled soviet subversion.
“They won’t believe that I’m watching Pussy Riot!” She thinks for a moment before confessing:
“I really DO NOT like it.”
She emphasizes the ‘do not’ which leaves me in no doubt that normally she would sit drinking tea in china cups, with matching saucers, denouncing such noise with her contemporaries. Yet, there is hesitation at the end of her sentence intimating that such a cliched conversation will not take place at their next weekly Saturday soiree… her confession continues…
“But I can’t tear myself away from it”
On the surface this is bizarre. A congregation of Christians witnessing the story of protest, prison and Putin’s Russia, communicated through subtitled songs. The tracks, like some great twenty-first century prog rock epic, segue endlessly, telling of arrest, trial, transportation, segregation, humiliation and a human spirit that continues to stand firm in spite of such inhumane punishment.
I look at the crowd packed under the canopy of the main stage and witness a strange subdued atmosphere, as the crowd are pulled, dragged even, towards a reference point by a strange thread. The strength of this thread comes from the intertwined strands of shared human experience expressed through music, translated lyric and imagery. The congregation share in the oppression and the injustice. This jarring musical genre transcends cultures, preferences and comfort zones. The music speaks to the souls of those bound within its strength. Not in the beauty of a ballad, the luxury of a love song or the feel-good spirit-lifting anthem, but through the passion of protest, the exegesis of experience and the sheer power of the performance.
As so much of modern society searches for the next feel-good moment, spirituality easily becomes associated with the latest high. Yet spirituality is not always a thing of beauty found in ancient architecture, sacred songs or hushed homilies! It can equally be found in a simple connection. Even a connection made to something outside our experience. Feel-good spirituality happily ignores pain and oppression. Feel-good spirituality is more about the self and less about others, yet the spirituality being discovered here is, through engaging with the oppression of others, an incarnational spirituality.
This crowd are not dragged, screaming and shouting, but rather slip into another world. Not just the world of Pussy Riot or Putin’s Russia but a world of shared oppression and injustice in which they slip into another’s shoes. Seeing the world through the eyes of the oppressed. A spirituality that is willing to encompass and live another’s pain is incarnational.
After the set a queue forms as Masha signs copies of her book. For 3 hours she sits and signs. For 3 hours the queue obediently and slowly shuffles forward, some reading her story as they wait. The snake forms a strange image but speaks of the deep connection that was made during the performance.
Billy Bragg writes, in his introduction to ‘A Lover Sings – selected lyrics’
‘Music can bring us together in common cause, engage and inspire us, focus our anger, and raise funds and awareness, but ultimately the only people with the ability to bring about real change are in the audience, not on stage.’
In 2003 Bragg headlined Greenbelt. As he introduced his political songs to the Greenbelt faithful, he underlined the point he makes in the above quote – that music does not become the substitute for activism – with a personal illustration. He joked about being arrested, in the early 1980’s, at RAF Alconbury and Molesworth and the Police knowing how to deal with a
‘doctor-martened’ Herbert like me, but little old ladies really confuse coppers! Why was a little old lady chaining herself? She was chaining herself there because she was a pacifist Quaker, because her faith made her come there and be chained there next to me… We found each other there, at the fence for the same reasons. I guess, I guess the left and the er, the er (heckle ‘right’) church, (no not the right mate it’s too easy, good heckle though!), have been coming together for a long, long time.’
Music can lift us to understand the world differently, it can shock us into seeing things from a totally new point of view. We can describe our feelings as we glimpse this brave new world in terms of spirituality but if our ears, ringing with the afterglow tinnitus of a gig, are deafened to the cries of the world we go back to there is no incarnation. Music can open the gate, but it is up to us to walk through and live and act for change.
In October 2013 Peter Gabriel brought his Back to Front tour to Manchester. I sat in the stalls next to two women who had travelled from Israel for the weekend to see Gabriel live and take in a Utd. match at Old Trafford! As the gig drew to a close Gabriel introduced Biko, which has been described by Michael Drewett, as ‘arguably the most significant non-South African anti-apartheid protest song’.
The song is emotive and evocative as a recorded track. Yet, live, the stark drumbeat and the passion of the story of Biko’s last days becomes a powerful conduit for the emotion of activism to flow. The crowd stood, as one, and joined in singing ‘Oh, Oh, Oh Biko’. As the song continued the audience sang with the backing vocalists ‘Oh, Oh, Oh’ and, encouraged by Gabriel, raised a clenched fist in solidarity with each ‘Oh’. As the crowd sang Gabriel brought the song out of South Africa and into the present day…
‘For all those young people risking their lives for their people… Zimbabwe, Palestine, Myanmar, Russian, China… sing for Stephen Biko’
I must admit I glanced a look to my left as he mentioned Palestine. The two Israeli women were singing and pumping the air with their clenched fists, they didn’t stop at the mention of a people their Government oppress. I have no way of knowing if they support their Government or not – all I know is that they sang with the rest of us – did they sing with Gabriel or in support of Palestinians who strive for freedom? This is why Bragg tells his stories of being a protester, why Pussy Riot’s t-shirts are printed with the legend ‘Anyone can be Pussy Riot’ and why Gabriel concluded Biko; ‘As always what happens now is up to you…’.
The power of the song won’t change the world, the feeling of connection with 15,000 other people all singing for an end to oppression won’t change the world. In Biko, Gabriel includes as part of the lyrics a Xhosa phrase “Yihla Moja” which means ‘come spirit’. A recognition that ‘the man (Biko) is dead’ but the spirit of resistance lives on. A call to join in the movement to end apartheid, a call to challenge modern-day injustice.
Pussy Riot, Billy Bragg and Peter Gabriel can illuminate and intone this spirit of resistance, and as the crowd we can catch the spirit and pump the air with our clenched fists in solidarity. Yet, we only give change a real chance to flourish when we sing Yihla Moja each day to the climate deniers, the corporate tax dodgers, the oppressive regimes, to poverty, the policies that rob people of rights and humanity. Then, and only then, do we give peace a chance.
As always what happens now is up to us…
I wonder what conversation the woman had with her friends after her experience of the Pussy Riot gig? Did they believe her? Was she able to express the raw emotion of such oppression and human resolve to fight the iron fist of injustice? And if she did – do they live any differently now? I can’t quite imagine them sipping tea from china cups through their balaclavas!
Along with Masha’s book, another best-seller at the festival were the ‘Anyone can be Pussy Riot’ t-shirts and hoodies which young, old, women and men proudly wore. Even as people packed tents and left, many still proudly wore the slogan and travelled back to everyday life.
I’m sure some of the books are gathering dust on shelves and perhaps some of those t-shirts are in the bargain bin of local charity shops! Yet, those who continue to sing Yihla Moja, after the festival has become a long fading memory, are invoking the spirit of resistance and incarnational spirituality that works for a change (that) is gonna come.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
*Greenbelt is an arts, faith and justice festival.