Singing to Power


British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement. The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra), "NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and, perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The Nation's website (www.thenation.com).

HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years in England.

How did that happen, and how did your politics find their way into your music?

BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983 and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing for ordinary people.

Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard "Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to articulate.

HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF] met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing something active and participatory you would organize your local McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice movement?

BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing. The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by smashing up fast-food joints.

My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world. It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors, living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted in labor organizing.

HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?

BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like the United States, where not only are the politics very different from the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.

HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored by a union.

BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the GMB, which is one of our general unions. …

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