Why are big festivals like Glastonbury so white? – The Guardian

Lenny Henry was right to raise the lack of diversity at these events – both onstage and in the audience
There are a few things you can count on in a British summer: two or three days of sunshine, an afternoon spent burning sausages to a crisp at a mate’s barbecue, and the cultural ubiquity of music festivals.
Pitching a tent in a field to watch some of music’s biggest acts is a British institution, but not one that caters to every community – as the actor and entertainer Lenny Henry recently pointed out. In an interview with the Radio Times, Henry commented on the lack of integration at British festivals. “It’s interesting to watch Glastonbury and look at the audience and not see any black people there,” Henry said, adding: “I’m always surprised by the lack of black and brown faces at festivals. I think, ‘Wow, that’s still very much a dominant culture thing.’”
I’m a guitarist in a Black feminist punk band called Big Joanie and I usually spend most of my summer in the back of a van travelling from festival to festival to play shows. I’ll be playing Glastonbury this week. Over the years I’ve seen every festival in every corner of this country and Henry is right – it’s a strange (and often disorienting) world to navigate as a Black artist.
This matters. It matters because Glastonbury is a central, celebrated part of British culture and its whiteness reflects how little communities of colour are considered when we go about defining “Britishness”.
There are so many reasons why people of colour are not attending large-scale outdoor, camping festivals such as Glastonbury. There is the obvious excuse that traditionally Black and brown people don’t camp and are put off by the bleak reality of festival campsites and the outdoors in general. This is a stereotype many people in marginalised communities are battling to break down, whether through countryside rambling initiatives such as Black Girls Hike or the Birmingham-based outdoors group We Go Outside Too.
More importantly, people of colour in these spaces have been made to feel at best an afterthought, or at worst unwelcome. We still remember Noel Gallagher’s comments about rapper Jay-Z headlining the Pyramid stage in 2008, describing hip-hop at Glastonbury as “wrong”. The racial undertones in his comment spoke to a niggling feeling that many people in the Black community already had: that Glastonbury was a space for “rock” music (read: white people) and everyone else should sit quietly in the corner or get out.
Glastonbury has since worked to correct this narrative and invited more hip-hop, R&B and grime artists. A huge moment for the Black British community came in 2019 when the rapper Stormzy headlined the Pyramid stage. Speaking in a BBC Two documentary about the festival, the Glastonbury organiser Emily Eavis said that Stormzy was representing the Black community and that his inclusion was “a little bit late maybe”.
Stormzy’s performance was an important moment but the celebration of it obscured the true history of the first Black British act to headline the Pyramid stage: the alternative rock group Skunk Anansie, led by queer Black frontwoman Skin, in 1999. The erasure suggests that the Black community is still seen as a monolith that listens to grime and hip-hop, and leaves little room for the full breadth and history of Black British artists.
It’s notable that city festivals based in ethnically diverse areas tend to have more mixed audiences. In my experience, both east London’s Lovebox and Parklife festival in Manchester regularly attract diverse audiences, a trend also reflected in their lineups. More than half of the performers at Lovebox’s 2019 event were Black, while this month’s Parklife festival featured headliners such as the Grammy award-winning American rapper Tyler, the Creator.
Beyond these big stages, there are also smaller, DIY initiatives in the UK and abroad to bring more people of colour into the arts by curating spaces that focus on them. I’m part of the collective behind a London-based festival called Decolonise Fest, which celebrates the people of colour in the punk scene. Our audiences are majority people of colour and I believe we’re able to achieve this because we are seen as being part of the community we are catering to, rather than creating a space and then years later realising we might have excluded people.
The lack of diversity in music festivals is not an isolated issue but rather an indication of the state of the wider UK arts and culture sector. The 2020 Arts Council England diversity report found that just 11% of staff at organisations it funded were not white.
Since the 2020 resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement there has been a slew of initiatives and declarations focused on diversity and inclusion within the arts. While practically every organisation has made its statement and pledged to do what it can to improve its diversity figures, there is little in place to ensure they make any of the changes they’ve agreed to.
Glastonbury’s 2022 lineup seems to reflect a need to reach new audiences, featuring acts popular in Black and brown communities such as the rapper Megan Thee Stallion, the Afrobeats star Burna Boy and the American rapper Kendrick Lamar, who will be headlining the Pyramid stage on Sunday.
But it will take time for people of colour to feel truly welcomed at festivals. Change doesn’t happen overnight but hopefully, summer after summer, we will begin to see audiences of art and culture spaces such as Glastonbury better reflect the country we all want to live in.
Stephanie Phillips is a musician, and an arts and culture journalist
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