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Anarchy in the capital

How music collectives in London are creating alternative mutual aid networks

Illustration by Natasha Phang Lee @npl_illustration

Dance Dance Revolution

shado and KALTBLUT magazine are taking three of Europe’s biggest cities, London, Berlin and Amsterdam, and investigating how and if young people are turning to music collectives as safe spaces of political community that traditional politics is failing to provide.


It’s 2019 and, like the majority of young people in Britain who made it to the ballots, you’ve just cast your vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the general election. Drawn in by his promises of ‘for the many not the few’ and a Green Industrial Revolution wrapped up in a handy ‘outsider’ package, you’re hopeful. However, yet again, mainly due to voters over 60, the election doesn’t go your way – and you’re forced to sit through more years of tedious, and ultimately dangerous, Tory leadership.

Time goes by and you watch as Corbyn is replaced by Keir Starmer and despite promises not to move too far away from Corbyn’s programme of nationalisation and fighting austerity, Labour becomes more and more centrist. This move sparks hope amongst some of your peers that this might mean final Tory failure, yet Starmer’s constant state of inaction soon causes youth disillusionment and prompts an unnamed shadow minister to ask Starmer to “stop boring everyone to death.” 

Unfortunately, being boring isn’t the only infraction we can lay at Starmer’s door. After calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “moment” and stating that calls to defund the police were “nonsense”, came a trend of moves by Starmer which drove youth away from the Labour party en masse, ranging from press-up challenges to suggesting rent-holidays rather than rent suspensions for the many financially crippled by the pandemic. 

Fast-forward to 2023 and Starmer has reneged on promises like the abolition of university fees, public ownership of utilities and, at the time of writing, has just promised his government’s hard-line approach to low-level drug use. 

It’s safe to say, you’re feeling pretty un-represented by the Labour party, and it goes without saying that the Conservative party’s 10 year run of racist and transphobic action now evokes a blistering rage. This has been my experience anyway. 

So what do you do? If, like a lot of your peers, you want to remain politically active but don’t feel as though working within the bounds of mainstream politics is representative of your thoughts, feelings and identity, where do you turn?  

Building rave resistance

One group of young people decided to start taking care of their own community, and formed Queer House Party during lockdown to look out for those who might be feeling isolated or forced into unsafe situations because of the pandemic. 

Formed originally just for friends, their first online party during the pandemic attracted over 1,000 people, proving to the collective that this space was really necessary. 

Once restrictions were lifted, Queer House Party evolved into what it is today: a radical community platform. The group don’t only hold their own nights but are in unapologetically loud attendance at protests and rallies such as the Sarah Everard memorial organised by Sisters Uncut and the more recent protest outside the British LGBT Awards after it was uncovered the organisation was being backed by Shell and BP, (the organisation have since cut ties). 

Attendees come to events in order to vent their frustrations with the current government, waving fans sporting ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) underneath a massive sign saying ‘Fuck the Tories’. 

However, these nights go way beyond just image. “We don’t want parties to just be a space of escapism,” says Nik, a Queer House Party DJ and organiser. “We want people to be able to come together in a joyous space, create new foundations and networks and then use that energy to go into the outside world and fight the struggles that exist.” 

Moving in (the right) circles 

 This idea of creating new networks is something embodied by Queer House Party members. Watcha, another Queer House Party founder and DJ, has gone on to create ‘Dance Against Deportations’, a night which fundraises to help support direct action against the hostile environment, such as the work being done by Stop Deportations and SOAS Detainee Support. This  is a great example of the presence and power of cross-movement solidarity which is created through nightlife spaces. According to Watcha, this kind of collective action is made possible by the ways dance spaces help us interact. 

They’re special because they allow us to lower our inhibitions and act in ways which facilitate connections that we might feel inhibited from doing so in our daily lives,” explains Watcha. 

Watcha encouraged this during their own night by catering the event and inviting people to come down early and converse over food before the music started. 

These barriers to cross-sector collaboration are often keenly felt in London, where rent prices and commuter times separate potential allies. “Nightlife spaces allow us to bump into each other in a way that’s not formalised or structured,” continues Watcha. 

This is something I’ve keenly felt. Working from home and being chained to my desk (sofa) all day, nightlife spaces often award me my only time to engage in-person with my community, and importantly to widen that community and meet like-minded people in a non-restrictive space.

Imagining new futures 

An opposite space is encapsulated by Nik’s next statement. “A Young Labour meeting is not a space where young people can see a bright future for themselves,” Nik highlights, discussing how the often exclusionary spaces mainstream political thinking occurs in can dampen collective imagining.

In comparison, spaces like Dance Against Deportations and Queer House Party are inclusive, allowing multiple voices to raise issues which pertain to them and collectively think of actions which benefit everyone. 

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“We’re not just thinking about organising when we’re in these spaces,” explains Watcha, “but about creating mutual aid networks, systems of care, interdependence and responsibility. We’re contradicting the way our lives are being forced to be under late capitalism.”

This re-imagining is far reaching and looks to create a world which relies on community action and organising, rather than the types of individualistic thinking supported by profit-driven governments. A way of moving forwards which is becoming increasingly popular to the growing number of people, who, like myself, feel left behind by mainstream politics. However, nightlife spaces aren’t just seeking to help us understand the wider picture, but actually enable us to get there. 

Exiting the club and moving forwards

Toby Evans Jesra, co-creator of Solidarity Tapes, a DIY project which links music and activism, manifests these ideas of community building in a practical way by running nights which operate as skill-sharing sessions and mixing workshops within radical art and music. “There is a significant crossover between activism and DIY art and music culture,” he says. “They both exist because of hard working communities of people that are passionate about making change and being heard. Our nights attempt to make these links clear and connect people from both pursuits.” 

The motivation to host these events is clearly political. When I ask if Toby feels at all represented by mainstream politics, he says: “The Tories are outright fascists and Labour seemingly aspire to be them. They don’t speak for us because they don’t care about us, their aims are to maintain or to get into power, and they will throw the most marginalised people and communities under the bus to do so.”

More important than ever?

It’s clear from speaking to these groups that they provide essential spaces for political re-imagining. The need for which, due to recent increase in the vitriol against LGBTQIA+ communities by the government, is unfortunately growing. 

“The emergence of very legitimised mainstream transphobia has really impacted the spaces I occupy,” states Watcha. “The drag scene is making work that’s more explicitly political and more unhinged. It has led to a lot of rage and energy to not only create art that responds to this, but to double down on consolidating networks in opposition to that harm and that fear.”

And it’s not just the government’s transphobic comments which have caused the increase in the politicisation of dance and performance spaces. The compounding effects of COVID-19 and its ensuing lockdowns, alongside the cost of living crisis, has pushed people to breaking point. 

The need is increasing. External pressures have become so great that having a true form of escapism can’t exist in the way it did,” explains Nik. This rings true to me in two ways. Not only am I less able to forget my troubles and dance the night away, when the cost-of-living crisis means a single drink makes a severe dent in my rent savings, but I also need to currently work more hours now than ever. If activism didn’t play a role in my ‘downtime’, it wouldn’t play a role at all. 

“People’s lives have been squeezed to such an extent concerning the amount of money and free time they have, it feels like we’d be doing people a disservice if we managed events that did nothing to help people move about in their daily lives after the fact,” says Nik. 

The lasting effects 

And there’s no going back for these groups. 

“We’re all anarchists in some shape or form,” says Nik. “So many more young people are leaning that way. My hope isn’t that young people get back into mainstream politics, as I don’t think that’s what is going to liberate us”. Watcha echoes this sentiment. “I just want our perspectives to be out there and put pressure on politicians so they don’t feel so smug about policies like the Rwanda deportations.”

This is an important point I think. Nightlife spaces aren’t claiming to have all the answers, or that one clubbing experience will take down a system which has in some way been in effect since 1215. The main aim is showing that, despite operating outside mainstream politics, groups like these have political statements to make. It’s about being heard and being taken seriously, and with that widening what people think of when they hear ‘political action’. 

And as these collectives have shown there’s more than one way to be involved in politics. “People have an extremely limited idea of what politics is,” says Nik. “Politics isn’t just legislation or Westminster tos and fros. If you go out into the public, you’ll see us. Various members of Queer House Party have gathered multiple times at Honor Oak, supporting the resistance to transphobic attacks on drag queens. There are many people under 25 there – that’s the politics that represents them.” 

The issue with physical space 

However, while nightlife spaces are amazing for what they offer young people searching for political action, this is limited by the physical spaces this can actually happen in. According to the Music Venue Trust, more than 35% of independent music venues have closed down in the past 20 years. Names like The Astoria and Printworks have joined the industry’s sacrificial pyre due to the combined pressure of COVID-19 and the cost of living crisis. 

Furthermore, the doors of these dwindling spaces are often closed to collectives like Queer House Party. Venues don’t want to seem too political by hosting nights which have a social justice purpose, especially those which are LGBTQIA+ or POC run, meaning that they are often, as Queer House Party member Liv states: “pushed into the basements and the attics.”

So, how can the messages of these collectives, and the action they inspire, spread when they’re running out of spaces to organise from?

Well, in a similar vein to their anti-establishment messaging, a few collectives are reaching outside of traditional structures and doing it for themselves, independently.

Meet Sister Midnight, a not-for-profit cooperative that is co-owned and democratically run by its members. They’ve just secured a 10 year rent free lease on a working men’s club in Catford, which will hopefully open in mid 2024. 

“Sister Midnight is really deeply concerned with the sociopolitical power of music”, states founding member Lenny Watson. “Creating a community owned venue in our local area really sets a precedent for how we can radically reimagine the music venue and what role it plays in communities.”

This is something I got to see first-hand through the presence of Sister Midnight at a local fair. Operating in a space which is community driven and intergenerational, their stall was easily one of the most popular in attendance. Amongst farm animals and fairground rides, a vast-cross section of the community vied for a chance to become a member of Sister Midnight and be granted voting rights to make decisions for the venue. It acted as a wonderful premonition for the future space. 

Lenny also underlines how transformative having a community-focused music venue can be. “It provides joy, it unites people, it provides opportunities – I could go on and on listing the benefits. And when you start a music venue the way we have, by crowdfunding from 900 local people to make it happen, it serves as a testament to the power of communities and goes a long way to prove that when we work collaboratively, we can make the most unlikely things happen.”

So, as bleak and unrepresentative as the UK’s political landscape seems to be for young people, in a sense when you take a hyper-localised look at Britain’s future it starts to matter less. 

The power of these community centric music collectives are growing and the care and education about cross-movement issues they provide are spreading. This proves that not only are London’s music collectives becoming more politicised, but the positive action they’re undertaking, and the harm they’re mitigating, will be felt more keenly than any government action, no matter who sits as head of parliament. 

So, if like me, you’ve been left feeling frustrated by mainstream politics and squeezed into believing you’ve not got nothing beyond survival mode, go along to the next Queer House Party, Sister Midnight or any of the many community focused, politically-charged nights happening in London. Busy schedule? No worries! After speaking to everyone involved, they’ve made it clear they’re not going anywhere. 

What can you do?

Illustration by Natasha Phang Lee @npl_illustration

 

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