I was going back to Hangleton, where I grew up. It is a residential area on the outskirts of Brighton which has rudely been skipped by the waves of gentrification moving out from the city centre. Brighton Festival was putting on a weekend of performance art at the community centres both here and in Whitehawk, namely to reach out to the most deprived parts of the city. I have to admit, I was extremely sceptical. But Kate Tempest, the guest director of the festival, and a sell-out young artist, was coming to perform in the community centre I spent so much time in as a kid, so I decided to go and check it out.
I did so with extreme caution. Of course, everyone should have access to the arts. As one commentator argues, even when people are struggling for rent they still go all out to buy tickets to Glastonbury – because they see art as a hope, a way out for the future. But something felt different here. It felt almost like the old fashioned philanthropist anthropologists were venturing into unknown territory to ‘give something back’. Will they understand the feeling of being hastily ushered inside by the community workers when a group of so-called ‘dangerous’ 16 year olds entered the park? Or having a pram thrown at you for playing with boys’ toys? How is sharing some music going to help people pay the rent, or ensure their houses aren’t going to burn down? What difference will this all-singing-and-dancing middle class festival have to contribute to a place like Hangleton?
As I walked in I could almost smell the sliced buttered toast and squash they used to give us after school. There weren’t any tickets left for the main event so we could only go to the show before – “Poets vs Rappers vs Comedians”. I was already writhing – I bet all those fans have taken up the tickets and are coming to take advantage of this free event. I could just imagine it: “Welcome Hangleton”, pronouncing all their Ts and Hs whilst talking to a crowd full of Brightonian hipsters. Even worse was my internal conflict of now being one of those middle class academics living in the city centre. Meanwhile, I was staring at a poster on the wall telling me to be “empowered”.
But then the show started. And in part, I was proved wrong. Everyone was made welcome to stick around for the main event, they’d made getting hold of tickets deliberately difficult for those ‘outside’ the community. What’s more, everyone was enthralled in the show – we were all shouting and talking and engaging with the performance.
Why? Because, Kate Tempest’s whole set was about the inequalities people face every day. She spoke up about the “this-has-got-to-be-a-joke flats”, “the old phone box where the tramp leaves his bedding”, and “half the generation living below the breadline”. She spoke/sung/rapped about the young guy Pete, living with his dad, spending all his wages on pills – but couldn’t afford to move out to a flat even if he didn’t. Also the carer, coming home in the early hours of the night, aching from the day’s work and unable to switch off from a worrying world. And Zoe, who is being forced to move out of the deteriorated flat she lives in because the landlord wants to do it up and charge double. Kate Tempest was overtly recognising the material inequalities people experience in their everyday lives.
And it worked. “I know it’s happening, but whose it happening to – is it happening to you?” She repeated these lyrics. A fully tattooed man standing against the wall started to wipe away the tears rolling down his face. A woman who seemed to be his friend was at the front beating her fist into the air: “yes!” This was not a silent crowd. Far from it. Everyone here could relate to what she was saying and the anger was rising up in the room. Betty, an elderly neighbour of my mum’s, was shouting “Hear! Hear!” And some of the guys from the act before were talking to one another with impressed faces whilst glancing back and forth from the stage.
At the end, everyone was elated. People rushed outside to go and talk with her. “You said everything I’ve been thinking but I didn’t know how to say it!” the tattooed man darted up to Kate at the end to let her know. It seemed this was a perfect example of the transformative nature of art. Its ability to make people feel and talk about things that they might otherwise compartmentalise in the back of their minds, lacking hope for any change. Jeremy Corbyn was criticised by some for talking at Glastonbury Festival – but here it seems he was right when he said that “creativity helps us get the message across”. The whole room was aware of the existence of, and more importantly the causes of, economic inequality in the UK.
But this is certainly not a happily-ever-after story. People in Hangleton, Whitehawk, and many other places in the UK still live in material poverty. Yes, people in the room were elated because there was an overt recognition of the material inequalities that people experience every day in their communities. But what happens now that its recognised? What difference has this gig made to people’s living conditions, their rights at work, or the money in their back pocket? Inequality is inherently material; it exists in the physical world. How can we ensure that the performing arts do not just highlight inequality, express their condolences, and walk away? I’m no expert in this field, but perhaps this kind of art should not only be about empowering those without resources, but convincing those with them to share them around.