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INTERVIEW ‘A chance for many people to be heard, to perform and showcase their work’

MOLLIE BROWN talks to Mike Quille about the opportunities for working-class artists offered by this year's Bread & Roses songwriting and spoken-word award

RECENTLY on these pages, trade-union leaders and activists like Clara Paillard from PCS and Theresa Easton from Artists’ Union England have talked about the importance of cultural democracy and the cultural struggle for working people.

And in the recent interview with Mark Taylor, one of the authors of Culture Is Bad for You, he talked about what trade unions could do about inequalities regarding class, race and gender in cultural production, consumption and representation. What's your take on these issues?

I very much agree with the focus on class-based inequalities that all three of them pointed to. Cultural production and consumption in Britain is grossly unequal, and it is scandalous that the enjoyment of publicly funded cultural experiences by the better-off is subsidised, through general taxation and lottery funding, by those with fewer economic and social resources.

It has been a particularly hard year for people working in the arts and culture industries. Funding and support for local grassroots cultural projects, particularly outside London, has been stripped to the bone over the last few years.

Cultural workers have taken an additional huge hit due to the pandemic — not just employed and freelance artists and musicians but all the support workers in theatres, museums, galleries, concert venues, cinemas and sports grounds.

The labour movement needs to campaign to protect those jobs, to share out publicly funded cultural services equally and to directly help create new cultural experiences for working people.

Working-class women and people of colour have additional problems in accessing and enjoying culture both as consumers and as workers in the cultural industries. In addition, they see untruthful, often negative, images of themselves in mainstream cultural production in films, books and TV programmes.

What do you think the labour movement can do about these problems?

A great deal. Paillard and Easton talked about trade unions working together on cultural issues. This is particularly important at the current time, when huge numbers of jobs and freelance opportunities have disappeared or are due to disappear from the cultural sector due to the pandemic.

And Taylor suggested the necessity of tackling inequalities simply through bypassing current modes of cultural production — in effect, reviving and maintaining a genuinely grassroots representative working-class culture.

There are two main ways trade unions can help influence and take control of cultural production. One is by joining partnerships and authorities such as the new culture compacts being established in a number of places across the country which help decide and guide the purpose and content of cultural experiences in their areas.

Secondly, trade unions as well as individuals can support cultural projects such as the Bread & Roses awards run by the Culture Matters co-operative, which I belong to. Supported by the Communication Workers’ and Musicians’ unions, we have just launched our fourth songwriting and spoken-word award.

It's designed to encourage cultural production and consumption by working people, for working people, and about working people’s experiences. The theme this year is “voices from a pandemic” — Covid has impacted on us all, either directly or indirectly by the pandemic, and our voices need to be heard.

How will the award be publicised and promoted?

Much of the publicity will be using social-media networks and contacts in the labour movement. Culture Matters runs a successful Twitter account — @culturesmatter — and we also have a Facebook page — @culturematters2019 — and we rely on our followers sharing and retweeting the details of the award.

Our YouTube channel is also up and running with a selection of entries and the winners from previous awards. It will be updated with new entries as they come in. We don’t have a huge budget for publicity, and getting details of the award out there very much relies on collective solidarity — so if you see it, please get sharing.

We also have many contacts in the labour movement and trade unions, so they are all sent the details of the award to share with their members and contacts. Unite the Union has been a particularly strong supporter — it really gets the importance of the cultural struggle running alongside the economic and political struggles.

We also make contact direct with folk groups, choirs and music providers across the country and send them details of the award and try and engage them in discussion about what we’re attempting to do. This for us is as important as the actual award.

This year we are making a special promotional video where we have asked people in the arts to say a little about the importance of working-class culture in their lives. It will include folk group The Young’uns,  actor and writer Maxine Peake and comedian John Scott. This will hopefully be launched in the next week, so look out for that.

We are excited about the award this year and  we’re hopeful it will help tackle some of the inequalities that Paillard and Easton spoke about. It’s also particularly relevant at the moment because it’s a chance for many people to be heard who are missing out on the opportunities to perform and showcase their work.

Details on how to enter the Bread & Roses songwriting and spoken-word award are at Culture Matters.

Mollie Brown is an executive committee member of the National Assembly of Women and convenor of the North East People’s Assembly.




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