Shzr Ee Tan (Royal Holloway University of London, UK)


The streets of London have historically served as spaces for activist movements, from suffragette marches to more recent anti-racism, Extinction Rebellion and anti-Brexit campaigns. Based on participant-observation from 2010-2019, this paper examines the sounds of political demonstrations across the city as ‘plural forms of performative action’ (Butler 2015), with street musicianship positioned against a segmentalised and intersectionally-cosmopolitan backdrop. The demonstrations’ ability to provide mobile platforms, bringing together different groups, is one starting point for understanding changing allegiances expressed through various degrees of musico-political affiliation. For example, a well-rehearsed samba band comprising semi-professional musicians chooses not to ally itself with another rival amateur samba act that, in promoting ‘a people’s march… accepts everybod’. The singer-songwriter guitarist avoids roving sound systems that blast R&B and Bollywood. Parents equip children with bells and whistles: partly to keep time with street chants, and to ensure they do not get lost. Sometimes, music does not even need to be heard as long as it is seen: a double bassist showcases his visually-impressive instrument symbolically. I argue that this huge variety of groups and their overlapping agenda reflect the diverse political and multicultural mosaics of London, regional communities across the UK, and solidarity groups abroad. Often, the boisterous staking and contestation of sonic space (which culminate both in speeches and multiple rave parties) have prompted critics to dismiss protestors as no different from punters at the Notting Hill Carnival, the city’s famous annual pageant. Protestors themselves maintain that political expression should evoke the celebratory alongside the angry or solemn. Beyond arguments concerning the agency, sectarianism, effectiveness or political ‘authenticity’ of these musical groups, I posit that one can detect collective investment in the physical and symbolic spatiality of London as a microcosm of an imperfect, progressive global village.

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