On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Teghan Barton of the Hillside Music Festival, happening from July 14 to 16 in Guelph, Ontario. They talk about the relationship between music and struggles for social justice and about this year’s decision by the festival to highlite music of protest and resistance at a moment that calls for as much of both of those things as we can muster.
Some people’s understanding of political music begins and ends with a stereotype of 1960s folk songs. But of course there are almost as many different flavours of musical resistance as there are movements and communities-in-struggle — from the songs of slaves in the US South in the 19th century, to the adaptation of Christian hymns by labour militants in the early 20th century, through blues and punk and hip-hop and songs of national liberation around the world, to the upsurge in recent years of Indigenous musicians spitting decolonial truths across Turtle Island, and much, much more. In different contexts and different moments, musical assertions of dignity and demands for justice and liberation can manifest in a dizzying diversity of forms.
But what about our moment, our context? The grip that commerce holds over music can be very tight, limiting in profound ways whose music gets heard and who is able to make a living performing, and this often does not favour artists who experience marginalization in one way or another, especially when those artists prioritize putting a message into their songs. Yet we are in a moment of overlapping crises, from incipient climate catastrophe, to ongoing state violence against Black and Indigenous people, to skyrocketing income inequality, to the growing power of a racist and violent far right. Resistance is happening on all of these fronts and many more, and so music is being made that embodies this resistance — in kitchens and living rooms, around fires and in community halls, in basements and warehouses. And, if you’re lucky, you can find a space near you that is dedicated to nurturing, supporting, and amplifying such musical resistance.
The Hillside Festival has been happening every summer for over three decades. When it started out in the 1980s, environmental concern was in a growth moment, so while the festival didn’t begin with a commitment to politics in its content it did start out with a commitment to environmental conscientiousness in its operations. Over the years, that has become a core principal of its organizing and one of the key things the festival is known for. Barton, who is a publicist with Hillside, describes the evolution of this ethic over the years to incorporate an increasingly expansive vision of social justice and peacemaking. For instance, in a context in which many festival lineups vastly underrepresent women musicians, for the last few years Hillside has, with little fanfare, ensured its lineup exhibits gender parity or better.
And this year? This year “music of protest and resistance” is Hillside’s theme. While there will also be many artists who channel their work in other directions, a solid subset of the performers that will be featured at the festival are artists whose work is explicitly political. Attendees will be able to hear performers like Anishnaabe singer Leonard Sumner; DJ Shub formerly of A Tribe Called Red; hip-hop crew MissingLinX; Yes, a queer no-borders feminist; protest music legend Billy Bragg; and a range of other performers who in one way or another infuse their music with concern for justice, like Sarah Harmer, NEFE, Denice Frohman, Las Cafeteras, and more. Hillside has also been running a protest song writing course for young musicians over the last few months, and attendees will get a chance to listen to what the participants have created. And in a continuation of a longstanding element of the festival, attendees will also be able to participate in and learn from numerous workshops under the banner of the Indigenous Circle space, which is run by Indigenous elders.
Barton talks about the long relationship between music and struggles for social change, about the history of the Hillside Festival, and about this year’s focus on music of protest and resistance.
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.
The image modified for use in this post was taken by Dean Palmer and is used with the permission of the Hillside Festival.