When one considers representation and inclusion within the arts then it seems there is a huge omission in relation to people with a learning disability. Goddard (2014) argues that people have very little or indeed no say in the in the development of the inclusion agenda when considering the professional arts from a UK perspective. The lack of any real and meaningful engagement with the arts would undermine any notion of being taken seriously as a starting point. The field is highly competitive and success is often based on existing relationships. Menger (2006) asserts that any work or opportunity is generally ‘piecemeal’ this then links to reputation or standing within the immediate community or group. Accordingly this then serves to magnify the power of differences in talent and work opportunity to increase inequality.
When considering people with a learning disability as a “professional artist” then one could argue that identity and the ability to grow and understand self are the prerequisite within “creative learning” but if as Menger offers the field is limited then how are people going to access the chance to perform on their own terms and equally develop a sense of self value as an artist? Fundamentally if access is the issue then where are the spaces where people can access the arts and contribute on equitable terms?
I was introduced to the “Nice n Sleazy” festival four years ago and it has been overwhelming watch it grow and develop. The festival is named after The Stranglers hit song from 1978 and has been part of the live music scene for fifteen years. I initially I thought it was a ‘punk’ festival though defining that term is virtually impossible. Tait Coles (2014) refers to punk as a state of mind” and attitudinal. Danny Baker writing in 1977 in the D.I.Y magazine ‘Sniffing Glue’ argued it is “something new” and furthermore that confusion is all part of the underlying philosophy of the movement and therefore “f*ck it, you go and figure it out” Baker (2104)
With this in mind then what has been created by the organisers is a music festival – Nice ‘n’ Sleazy.
The difference here however is that it is evident that the team have adopted an approach to support equality, diversity and inclusion through their own understanding and definition of punk. If ‘actions speak louder than words’ then one can see the huge push to creating a space that is safe for all. It equally provides opportunities for employment and performance and then sets the scene for four days of music and entertainment.
In 2019 the festival was awarded ‘Disability Confident’ status. The tangible reality of this is that people with learning disabilities both perform and work on site For the full duration of the event. The Disability Confident scheme claims to support employers “to make the most of the talents disabled people can bring to the workplace” (on-line 2020) Moreover the scheme is seen as a way of addressing how employers engage with people with a disability.
According to the web-site there are 8.1 million people in the UK that have some form of disability. Defining disability can be problematic however Shakespeare and Watson (2001) perceive the term as complex and assert that one cannot reduce a definition to just biological circumstances. Equally important are psychological and socio-political factors”. This seems to capture the idea that a disability could be a social construct, Hiranandani (2005) and here in is the overriding philosophy of the Festival.
When viewed through this prism ‘disability confident’ argues that by adopting more inclusive strategies for support then an organisation can change behaviour and cultures within “businesses, networks and communities “on line (2020) The reach is measured way beyond the immediate employer. By embracing inclusivity and by people having a visible and valued presence the potency of the message is magnified.
Running parallel with this is the notion that whilst exploring and having access to arts people with learning disability have a very real chance to “express themselves through different creative opportunities and media. According to idonline.org (2020), people can “gain confidence” in terms of self-development. More importantly though is the idea of the person being seen and valued as an artist or performer in their own right. Creating our own selves through the arts reflects Stuart Hall’s concept of identity being understood as identification, that is an evolving process rather than a fixed identity that is often ascribed to us by society and particularly for people with a learning disability (Hall, 1990).
Whilst trying to steer clear of labels, Becker (1963) and being mindful of respecting how people may want to self-define it is noticeable that “Sleazy” has given a platform and equal standing to the following bands
- The Ec-Tix https://en-gb.facebook.com/ECTIX/
- The Positives https://en-gb.facebook.com/pg/ThePositives3/about/
- The Dead Rejects https://www.facebook.com/deadrejects/
- Clan Of Anarchy https://en-gb.facebook.com/officialclanofanarchy
The latest track by the White Ribbons band is available for download with the funds going towards supporting the EC-Tix to be supported to tour Norway during summer 2020.
It is easy to see why the bands sit well within the festival due to their own punk ethos. Aligned with this therefore one could argue that “Sleazy” is a world away from how other festivals organise and promote what they do. There is no fuss and no huge banner proclaiming and asserting inclusivity. This reflects Beresford and Croft’s ‘democratic / citizenship’ approach to inclusion that emphasises people’s rights as citizens (as artists) to create and set their own agenda and identities, rather than as ‘consumers’ or ‘service users’ to be consulted in an often reactive manner to ‘tick the box of inclusivity’ (Beresford & Croft, 2003).
This philosophy is captured perfectly by Pauline Murray lead singer of Penetration who when asked what is it like being a woman in rock offered she never considered her gender an issue. Murray explains “I just thought I was part of the band” in retrospect however “it seems quite revolutionary, the way women were behaving. Females in bands were breaking down stereotypes” PR Intern (2017) Could the same be said of the bands appearing at Sleazy?
If pushed it is doubtful the bands above would describe themselves as having a learning disability. The idea that a group of musicians would want to be categorised in this way seems wholly at odds with my understanding of the rock persona. Joe Strummer of The Clash in defining ‘self-awareness suggested it has something to do with ‘an ability to trust your own judgement’ and more importantly “an ability think for yourself” as cited in Coles (2014) The chances are the respective bands just want to be musicians, performers and artists and consequently this is how they see themselves.. Doubtless that is exactly how the promoters at “Sleazy” make sense of it all. One is left to ask therefore, is there any other way to see it?
I wanted to do a piece here about inclusivity within the arts and I have focused on this festival as the yard stick by which others could measure their impact. In considering Sleazy I haven’t spoken about the broad range of opportunities it presents for people (with a learning disability) to work as sound engineers, stage managers, lighting technicians, stage runners and the wealth of talent it embraces to do this.
I haven’t discussed how the festival supports and promotes the White Ribbon Campaign which was founded in 2005 and is “part of a global movement concerned with ending male violence against women. “Much of the work we do is concerned with engaging men and boys regarding attitudes and behaviours, raising awareness, influencing change and providing resources to make change happen in relation to domestic violence and abuse of women and girls” White Ribbon.org.uk (2020).
I also would have wanted to raise the work that Sleazy have been doing since 2016 in promoting The Sophie Lancaster Foundation. As part of their developing agenda regarding equality and diversity the organisers have been instrumental in challenging ‘hate crime’. This has allowed a further opportunity to increase and raise awareness and address discrimination and prejudice on an individual basis. Sophie Lancaster was a young woman that was murdered and her death was treated as a Hate Crime by Judge Russell who sentenced the murderers accordingly. Under the current UK Hate Crime Legislation (Section 146), as the motivation behind the murder was hateful, he was able to use his discretion to class it as a “Hate Crime”. The work the foundation does focuses on creating respect for and understanding of subcultures in our communities. Where better to do that than at a punk festival?
It is probably worth mentioning that the team also support Morecambe food bank. There is a donation point in the foyer at the festival where food can be left and once the weekend is over the donations are then transported to the charity. Again this evidences how “Nice n Sleazy” has an alternative perspective when considering how to promote and host a music festival.
The tangible reality of this is not only do people with learning disabilities perform and work on site during the weekend, there is a massive emphasis on inclusion, diversity and equality. This is a world away from how other festivals organise and promote what they do, so in conclusion one could say “Nice and Sleazy does it every time” The Stranglers (1978)