Columnists / Ngaio Anyia

‘If festivals want increased participation, they need to earn it’

By ngaio anyia, Tuesday Apr 16, 2019

As festival season draws closer, I’m forced to ask – which ones are actually taking responsibility?

Some of you may or may not have seen the recent call-out from Stormzy to Snowbombing Festival. Calling out the festival on Instagram Stories, Stormzy alleged that his manager and friends were racially profiled by the festival’s security because they had ‘reason to believe someone was carrying a weapon’.

Stormzy went into detail about why he pulled out while also apologising to his fans who travelled to the festival and spent money to see him perform. The festival itself is yet to comment, but have been bribing their Twitter followers with drinks tokens if they come to their defence online. Classy.

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While there are things that could be said around the Twitter trolls who have jumped in to vilify Stormzy, starting the hashtag #PrincessStormzy in a bid to shame the artist for taking a stand, most people can see this as the integrity-heavy act that we’ve come to love Stormzy for.

I commend Stormzy once again for using his platform to shine light on the systems in which people are complacent and dismissive within their power.

For the past year I’ve been talking to various festivals and people within the entertainment and events industry about what they can do to make sure that these sites are safe spaces. When you have had a racially-profiled encounter where someone has attacked or humiliated you or your friends due to ‘mistaken identity’, that experience, depending on its severity, can totally ruin your day. Your week. Your month, your year!

These moments trigger a trauma within you which reminds you that don’t belong. You have no power. That’s what those situations do and there comes a point when you have to start admitting to yourself that these aren’t honest mistakes.

These are people looking at you through their biased eyes and thinking – you’re going to be a problem. They feel the need then to make you understand that you are not in control. They are in control.

I’ve been going to festivals since I was a child. I’ve been working in events for the last five years on and off, and throughout that time I’ve consistently heard people say things along the lines of, ‘It’s so weird the audience isn’t mixed as they used to be’; or, ‘Yeah, we don’t know why more black people don’t come to the festival, just look at the lineup’”.

And I say, yeah but why is that? What are you doing to figure out why that might be? I can completely understand why a person of colour might not want to be trapped in a field with a hostile team with no apparent understanding of the terms ‘racial profiling’ or ‘microaggressions’.

Already, people of colour are living in a society where it’s normal for them to get pulled up on road, frisked too long by security, followed around a supermarket. And those minefields of potential humiliation and helplessness are happening at home; where you have an ability to go to a home or place of safety once it’s over.

That is not yet the case at festivals. If something happens to you at a festival you are stuck in a field with the people who did this in the first place and there is no escape.

I’m so sick of the onus of event diversity being put on people of colour, because that’s not for them to figure out. It’s not for them to test how much they can endure whilst they’re at your event, it’s for you to figure out what you can do to make sure that they do not feel that way when they are there. To make sure there are processes and codes of conduct put in place across the board – behind the scenes and front of house.

I’m coming to this from an understanding of festivals as well and I completely understand that good security is hard to come by. I don’t think any festival organisers knowingly employ staff who they think are going to be prejudiced.

You don’t always know who’s coming to work for you and festival staff are constantly changing as high turnover roles, but there are ways to make sure that if something happens, everybody is protected. Guidelines, codes of conduct, training, there are processes that could be put together if the industry wants to make a real, tangible change.

And yes, it’s going to need budget, it’s going to take time, it’s going to take planning, it’s going to take people actually stepping up to make this happen.

Smaller arts organisations are doing it already. Every day I see inclusion officer roles going up and that’s brilliant. But festivals, big large-scale festivals, should be the ones leading this because they have the biggest influence.

Festivals are one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors. Glastonbury is the largest greenfield festival in the world, and is now attended by around 175,000 people – effectively the size of a city. They have the opportunity to get people to really listen on a global scale. They have that power.

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These microcosms of society up are based around letting go of your inhibitions and meeting new people and opening your mind and opening your heart. They are the perfect place to educate people on what is and isn’t okay.

We’ve never needed this more than we do right now. Brexit shows we should be relishing in our similarities rather than focusing on differences.

Stormzy’s story shows how incredibly behind the curve parts of the festival industry is. I say this as someone who adores festivals, who attends multiple each year and cares deeply about the opportunity they provide. I know they give attendees so much more than brilliant music, good vibes and new friends you would never otherwise have met.

As a mixed race female who grew up in rural Wales, festivals were where I first fell in love with my culture and began to understand that a part of me came from elsewhere, but that was really okay. Living in a tiny town with no black people, that message could have easily passed me by.

In among the racism and the othering, I had memories of people who looked like me on a stage, being amazing, being their best selves. Despite the daily aggressions, I could hold on to that understanding as a sense of pride. That is where I got my pride and love of where I came from.

By not insuring our festivals are safe spaces, we’re taking that opportunity away from someone. To be honest it has to move away from that now, that should be the base minimum the industry is striving towards.

We’re not just entertainers. We’re not just inspirational speakers. We’re not just a journey that can be told around trial and strife about how far we’ve come. We’re not just our performance. We enrich this society and should be given access and a seat at the table to help shape it.

Festivals have the potential to provide huge amounts of work to those on the circuit for at least half the year if not more and yet the same people working within the same networks consider to get the same job opportunities.

That is why we need to move out of the ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ mentality and do something because the industry IS broken. It might be making money but on this subject with diversity and equality at its heart, this system is running on nepotism.

Who is trying trying to tackle it? I don’t know of many other than The Sisterhood at Glastonbury who are leading the way on safe space curation and education. Started in 2016, this collective of artists, culture-makers and musicians committed to empowering and training women, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people into creative and curatorial positions.

Based in Shangri La, they are improving gender equality through policy, programming and critique within the music, arts, culture and nightlife industries. What they have achieved and continue to do is fantastic, from the forward-facing to the work that’s done behind the scenes. Because that is where work largely needs to be done.

Community Resolve, who I have been working alongside looking at how to tackle this issue from the roots, have already delivered training within the industry. In-house training and organisational responsibility needs to be at the root of changing this mentality.

Festivals and the arts are not exempt from the inherent need for equal representation and it begins here, and with monitoring progress. Until some records are created and changes are made there can be no room for evolution. People want a solution without taking the time to think about the problem and implementing change within company policy to make change a reality.

It’s easier to point the finger of blame than to look inward but that is such a backward way of looking at things because we’re all learning every day. There’s some things that I know that someone else won’t know and vice versa.

No one is perfect, no is without learning that they can do, but let’s just start learning. Let’s start building something together. I’ve got absolutely no problem with cultural exchange, I think it’s fantastic and keeps us all evolving but there is a massive difference between appropriation and appreciation and the latter has been prevalent for far too long.

We’re not going to put ourselves in potentially triggering situations to help your stats before you do any work behind the scenes to assure us that you understand the spaces we are walking into. If you want participation, earn it. Help us to evolve within your circles. Don’t just take the bits you want to further your agenda.

Making tangible changes within your organisations, find the people who have experience within the industry (because they are there, they are definitely there) to do this work with you if you don’t know how to.

If you don’t want to take that responsibility on, then fine but then don’t think you’re part of the solution because you’re not. If you’re not trying to solve this, you are still very much part of the problem.

Ngaio Anyia is a journalist and social commentator working in inclusion and diversity within the arts

Main photo of Ngaio DJing at St Paul’s Carnival courtesy of Coalition Sound

Read more: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’

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