Street Choirs: safe spaces or spaces of exclusion?
Between 2014 and 2018 the Campaign Choirs Writing Collective, a small team of activists and para-academics, carried out more than forty oral history interviews with members of street choirs across the length and breadth of Britain. Street choirs in this context signifies radical campaigning or political choirs, predominantly socialist or peace choirs. The sobriquet ‘street’ is traceable to choirs’ involvement or, in some cases, origin in the British street bands movement. Not all of the choirs whom we interviewed actually sang on the street. Many do, however, at demonstrations and rallies as well as more regularly to raise awareness and/or money for campaigns and causes. Ultimately, our participatory action research project sought to address the question of how street choirs might develop their individual and collective potentials in ways that took into account their members’ everyday realities, hopes and dreams.
So, some of the questions we posed to street choir members were: What world do you want? What does your perfect society look like? To help them get to grips with such daunting utopian questions, we encouraged our interviewees to focus on their choir: What are you singing for? In your utopia, how would the choir change? One fascinating aspect of the research was the tension between a street choir as a safe space and that space being exclusionary. A safe space of shared experience and solidarity implies a simultaneous space disbarring difference and so precluding the development of new political relations, notably intersectional solidarities, typically an agonistic and so disruptive process.
The tension between safe and exclusionary space extends to street choirs when considered together as a social movement. One issue that the evolving Campaign Choirs Network has explicitly recognised as problematic is the relationship between street choirs and community choirs. Community can denote manifold relations but in this case a shared experience of place is the most typical. Street and community choirs share an annual festival, named the Street Choirs Festival but increasingly inhabited by a community choirs majority. Contestation of festival space is quite evident in practice, exemplified by the songs that the massed choirs choose to learn and sing together. Street choirs generally demand explicitly political songs, while for community choirs the drive seems to be more the music than the message. One aspect of our research focussed on how the contestation of festival space might be rendered constructive rather than divisive.
The evolving Campaign Choirs Network of street choirs inhabits a relational space that encompasses contradiction. While the movement actively extends a welcome to women-only and LGBT+ choirs, it is ambiguous about opening this political embrace to choirs as exclusionary spaces of community, youth, ethnicity or maleness. What, for instance, is the Campaign Choirs Network to make of the fairly recent advent of a new generation of men-only choirs such as Chaps Choir and Spooky Men's Chorale? The defining statement of the latter is the light-hearted: 'We can grow beards, if we want to’. Be it sexually straight, gay or otherwise, the identity politics of such safe spaces centres on the shared experience of a physically prescribed maleness.
No room to presume
In a recent article for The Conversation, Thomas Breeze proposes that traditional male-voice choirs, specifically those from traditionally working class communities, should admit female singers to counter declining participation[i]. A significant presupposition of our research was that, in order to develop their potentials, street choirs would need to grow and diversify their memberships, in particular via attracting younger and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people as well as more men. Although ours was not a quantitative survey, the Campaign Choirs Network, and thus our research population, is predominantly female, aged between 50 and 70, and white. As we’ve already mooted, however, diversifying the membership of a street choir is not straight-forward. How can existing spaces of shared experience and solidarity also be made spaces of welcome and safety for people from different life worlds and politics? One of our interviewees, Wendy Lewis of Côr Cochion Caerdydd (Cardiff Reds Choir), was clear that music alone cannot play such a role: “the people who have stuck with us are the people who didn’t think they could sing but were interested politically and then learned to sing. As opposed to the people, in the past, who had lovely voices but… Well, they’re not going to stick around if they don’t agree with the politics.”
Just imagine that
Asking our interviewees to imagine a utopian future served to illuminate the tensions and ambiguities of safe spaces and exclusion. Sean Maddison Brown of Sheffield choir Out Aloud recalls homophobia being rife in his city: “I can remember being in a gay pub only few hundred yard from here and them having to put shutters down because it was being pelted by yobs. That’s not very long ago.” Out Aloud became a safe space for the LGBT people in Sheffield and Sean recognizes the benefits of a diversity that arose from a politically necessitated solidarity: ‘What I’ve gained from it [being in Out Aloud] is meeting a lot of fabulous women, actually… who I would not have come across socially.” Noting an initial reluctance from both men and women to join, Sean told us that: “we feel it’s our strength now to have that mixed choir.” Imagining a utopian future raised some confusing political questions and Sean said: “A gay choir might not exist in the future. The need for it would disappear… The issue of gay should disappear, like the issue of women should disappear. The issue around women and women needing to come together, to be separate, to have support, to fight for their rights and so forth. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have any of that because we would be [equal].”
Sean’s story illuminates that whether a street choir is a space of exclusion can be a matter of power relations shifting over time. In this regard, Thomas Breeze’s suggestion that male voice choirs could open up to female singers may hold good. As with Out Aloud, people of all genders (and none) could gain from the interaction; diversity could become their new choir’s political strength. On the other hand, in our current moment many BAME people may need any choir that they join to be an exclusionary space so that it is a safe space. The research findings we shared with the Campaign Choirs Network problematize the presupposition of developing street choirs by a seeking a blanket increase in their diversity. Some men, young people and BAME people will join existing street choirs, but others may need the support of the Campaign Choirs Network to form their own choirs. In some cases, exclusion can be a progressive politics. At least for the time being.
[i] Breeze, Thomas (2018) “Male voice choirs are (from) the pits – here’s why they should welcome women.” The Conversation, April 6. Available at https://theconversation.com/male-voice-choirs-are-from-the-pits-heres-why-they-should-welcome-women-94589 (Accessed July 13, 2018).