Love music, hate corporate sponsorship

Aggressive security and commercialism undermined this festival's message

<strong>Love Music, Hate

"I was here 30 years ago, mate," said the punk in the pinstriped pork-pie hat who was standing in front of me in the queue, bouncing around with excitement. He was about to continue when a security guard gruffly interrupted. "If you're going to take pictures with that camera, we'll confiscate it," he said to the punk. I looked around and it seemed that all the guard's colleagues were engaged in similar pursuits: rifling through pockets and throwing away any drinks that people were trying to bring into the fenced-off arena.

That episode appropriately set the scene for Love Music, Hate Racism. A free music festival, organised by anti-racist campaigners and trade unions to mark the 30th anniversary of the original Rock Against Racism concert - and to encourage people to vote against the British National Party in the 1 May local elections - it promised a diverse bill of artists ranging from old punks through to young rappers and DJs. This should have been a triumph. Instead, it was a washout, and not because of the rain that drizzled throughout most of this Sunday afternoon.

From the moment you entered Victoria Park's fenced-off arena, it became clear that there was as little festival spirit here as you'd find at the most commercial of Britain's summer music events. Aside from a few concessions to political groups near the entrance, the site was filled with rows of fast-food vans and a giant sponsored drinks tent. It was encouraging to see such a mixed, enthusiastic-looking crowd turn out in support of the anti-racist message - 100,000 at the final count - but once inside there was little to get excited about.

A rare highlight, among a slew of middle-of-the-road rock bands, was a teenage rap group called Little Rascals - protégés of the grime star Dizzee Rascal - who showed off their lyrical skills and boasted about their (lack of) age. Of the rockers, the inexplicably popular Hard-Fi summed things up. "Music brings us together, racism tears us apart," shouted their singer in anodyne fashion before launching into yet another blokeish slice of retro-rock.

I wasn't around 30 years ago, but this seemed a far cry from the original Rock Against Racism concert. The punk bands that played back in 1978 - The Clash, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks - promoted a culture in which people were encouraged to be active participants, rather than passive spectators. "This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band," went the famous punk slogan. In today's music industry, it would be more like: "These are the results of our marketing demographics survey. Now generate some income."

Things looked like they were going to pick up around 4pm. Suddenly, the arena seemed full of kids making a beeline for the dance tent, where a succession of DJs that included Skream, Hype, Target and Karnage were mixing up dubstep, drum'n'bass and UK garage. It was loud, it was sweaty, it was . . . closed down early by security. Too crowded, apparently.

At 5pm it was time for The Message. On the main stage a series of trade union leaders took over the mike and shouted anti-BNP slogans at a less-than-responsive crowd. I mean no disrespect to the audience by this: people like to moan about the apathy of young people today, but I'd defy even the most committed activist to muster up enthusiasm after four hours of tramping around a soulless site that was somewhere between World O'Deep-Fried Doughnuts and the Camden Noodle Slop Company.

Our reward for making it past this was a performance from the former Blur frontman Damon Albarn and his side project, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, who ran through some fairly pleasant ditties not dissimilar from late-era Blur. "We're here to celebrate collaboration between black and white musicians," Albarn told the crowd. On this evidence, there wasn't that much to celebrate.

Such a dispiriting afternoon in the park only went to show that you can't inspire young people to realise their own political agency and simultaneously coerce them into behaving like docile consumers. If you choose to play by the corporate rules, it doesn't matter how loudly you shout "Fuck the BNP", or anything else, because your message will always be drowned out by the one coming from the Carling beer tent.

Pick of the week

Ladyfest London
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Balkan Fever London Festival
10 May, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1
Opening-night concert features the Turkish clarinettist Selim Sesler.

All Tomorrow's Parties
9-11 May, Pontin's, Camber Sands

Festival at a holiday camp, co-curated by Pitchfork music website.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything