How true is Glastonbury in 2017 to its politically radical heritage? This year’s festival boasted a headline-making speech from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Eavis family’s usual impressive commitment to green causes. But with Johnny Depp a guest of honor at Worthy Farm despite recent accusations of domestic abuse, and allegations that current ticket prices have priced out the working class, is it still the hippie utopia it claims to be? April Clare Welsh went down to the festival to discover its flames of radicalism are still burning – but nowhere near the Pyramid Stage…
It must be hard for the organizers of Glastonbury trying to reconcile its radical political roots, stretching back almost 50 years, with its status as one of the biggest and most high-profile festivals on the planet, and all the expectations that come with that.
Glastonbury is meant to be, and in a lot of ways still is, a left-wing playground with plenty of opportunities to indulge in an earth-loving ethos that’s anti-nuclear, anti-Conservative and pro-equality. Inspired by the hippie and free festival movements, Glastonbury was originally launched by founder and Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament supporter Michael Eavis as the Pilton Festival in 1970, later becoming the Glastonbury Free Festival. Ever since, it’s enjoyed strong ties to the anti-nuclear collective – and even in 2017, the CND has a notable presence at the festival.
But continuing to deliver the star power and blockbuster bookings demanded of one of the biggest festivals on earth has meant making concessions over the years. In 2014, a petition was launched to ban Metallica from their headline slot on account of the group’s support for hunting wildlife, while Kanye’s history of misogynist comments, lyrics and other problematic behaviour made him a controversial choice of headliner for some in 2015. Multi-millionaire Adele also performed in 2015 despite infamous complaints to Q magazine about having to pay 50% tax on her earnings, only four years after U2 were subject to an ArtUncut protest during their headline set over the Irish rockers’ tax arrangements.
This year’s headliners appeared at first to be relatively safe bets, but also sparked protests this weekend. Glastonbury veterans Radiohead saw their set greeted by shouts of ‘free Palestine’, with many fans conflicted about the band’s refusal to cancel their gig in Tel Aviv in the light of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the ongoing cultural boycott of the region. Ed Sheeran meanwhile performed a private show for Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing The Sun news group at the News UK Chateau in Cannes just days before he took to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury – another red flag that, when added to Fatboy Slim’s recent claim that the festival had become “middle class”, echoing the consensus that charging £228 a ticket has begun pricing out some working class people and low-income families, lends weight to the argument that Glastonbury is struggling to hold on to its identity.
The biggest point of controversy this year however was undoubtedly the festival’s alarming decision to invite Johnny Depp to open its new drive-by cinema area, Cinemaggedon, and present his film The Libertine. The actor was last year accused of domestic abuse by his now estranged wife Amber Heard, who supplied photo evidence before eventually settling the case with her ex-husband.
Emily Eavis – daughter of founder Michael and one of Glastonbury’s main driving forces – admitted that the festival books the right names first and worries about their personal histories second, when asked about Depp’s appearance in the run-up to this weekend. “If you start booking people on their ethical policy and morals, there’s a lot of people you wouldn’t book, to be honest,” she told the Guardian, to the disappointment of many who feel Glastonbury has a responsibility to hold itself to higher standards than a man accused of repeatedly assaulting his wife.
“I would chase Depp out of here with a fucking stick,” says Alice Holland, programmer at The Sisterhood – a “radical clubhouse” hidden behind a discreet sticker-clad black door in the festival’s Shangri-La area. It’s Glastonbury’s first women-only space, welcoming trans women, cis women and gender-fluid people with a strong femme identity, and features an open toilet art installation embellished with tampons. “I feel extremely disappointed but not in the least bit surprised,” she continues. “Because even men who do not have that level of privilege exercise the feeling that they are above the law, or that they are not going to get in trouble.”
The Sisterhood is one of the spaces onsite that prove, whatever challenges Glastonbury faces in other areas, there is still true radicalism to be found at Worthy Farm. Over the weekend it features everything from live performances and DJ sets from Shy One and punk band Dream Nails (who originally formed after a meeting at direct action feminist group Sisters Uncut) to a performance art wrestling crew named Theresa May Smackdown and an open breastfeeding event.
It’s not alone. There’s also Block9, a dystopian vision of a New York City meatpacker’s warehouse circa 1982, also known as the NYC Downlow. This was the festival’s first radical queer space, founded 10 years ago and “inspired by and created to showcase excellence in homocentric dance music”. Block9 celebrated its anniversary this year with a jam-packed schedule that included Horse Meat Disco’s James Hillard, Mykki Blanco, Steffi & Virginia, Prosumer, Jonny Woo and Masters At Work all performing.
There’s also the Pussy Parlure in Silver Hayes, the kind of space where Mykki Blanco can deliver a queer disco mosh pit rave that runs the gamut of a rap show, a ‘90s house party and a sweaty punk gig, with Bikini Kill’s feminist anthem ‘Rebel Girl’ playing out his set. This is followed swiftly by a performance from Princess Nokia, whose own feminist credentials were put beyond dispute when she allegedly punched a male member of an audience at a Cambridge University show for sexist heckles.
“It’s just so important for women to get together,” says Holland of these spaces on site. Founded partly in response to the rise in reports of sexual assaults at UK festivals, her Sisterhood is naturally run by an all-woman crew that includes venue manager Romy, tech manager Paula and a number of apprentice technicians who are being trained up to do sound and light. Holland wanted to acknowledge the fact that if you go into most production offices at festivals, you’ll often find them headed up by women. “The more time we spend in women-only or women-heavy company, the longer we live, the happier we are, the smarter we are and the more peaceful the planet,” she continues.
The need for The Sisterhood and the areas like it at Glastonbury are compounded by statistics. A recent report by the Metropolitan Police revealed that reports of rape in London clubs, bars and pubs rose by 136 per cent over the period from 2011 to 2016. Sexual assault at festivals remains a widespread problem: there’s a reason why last month saw the launch of the Association of Independent Festivals’ Safer Spaces campaign which, backed by organisers of 28 events across the country including End of the Road and Bestival, arranged a 24-hour web blackout in a bid to raise awareness of sexual assaults at festivals.
Add to this the near-total lack of gender balance on most UK festival bills, and the necessity of spaces specifically for people who identity as queer or female is clear. In a time when LGBTQ+ and women’s rights have never been more under threat – both in the wake of the Tories’ deal with the DUP, who oppose same sex marriage and legal abortions, and in the wider context of Donald Trump – such spaces need protecting. Whatever criticism Glastonbury receives for its practices on the Pyramid Stage, it deserves applause for its work here. Other festivals should follow suit.
April Clare Welsh is on Twitter