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The reason Glastonbury is so white

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

The former comedian Sir Lenny Henry has questioned why there seem to be so few black people at rock festivals such as Glastonbury. He might equally have asked why there are so few young people. Or just concluded that the festival was a convocation of smug airheaded middle-aged white liberal kidults and that black people were, by and large, well advised to steer clear of it.

Sir Lenny and I are engaged in the same sort of research work at the moment. Lenny’s job is to look at various British institutions and to point out that there are too few black people present; mine is to look at British institutions and point out that there are far too many of them. It is important work, this bean counting, and I am surprised and disappointed that while Lenny has been knighted for his contribution to the research, I have yet to receive so much as an MBE for mine. (Note to social justice warriors about to report this article to Hope Not Hate and then the police: the above is intended to be humorously and self-deprecatingly satirical. It is not a bald statement of fact, even if Owen Jones tells you it is.)

Are black people underrepresented at Glastonbury? For there to be proportionate representation, you would expect to see perhaps three black faces per one hundred people, or slightly more than 6,000 black folks in total. My guess is that there are in general somewhat fewer than this number and that Sir Lenny is probably correct. Were the audience demographic a little lower in age – it is currently almost 40 for those attending and nearly 50 for those performing – perhaps the representation of ethnic minorities would be higher. The top headliner this year is Sir Paul McCartney, who will be 80 years old when he performs. Perhaps, somewhere in the ’hood, young black folks are clamouring to see the former Beatle perform, hoping all the while that he will give a rendition of his fairly awful ‘inclusive’ number, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ – but I have my doubts.

The problem for Sir Lenny and the bean counting is that Glastonbury is supposedly a rock festival and that by and large black people tend not to be rock fans. Back in the day, Glastonbury catered for three exquisitely white forms of music – folk rock, prog rock and heavy metal. Black involvement in all of these genres was (and still is) minuscule. The only black folk you’d find in the crowd back then were the original blues musicians present solely to count up how many of their songs had been purloined by Jimmy Page without so much as a thank you or a solitary credit.


The only area in which there was much of a crossover between rock and black music was in jazz fusion and what was once called ‘blue-eyed soul’, i.e. soul music played by white folks. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, black musicians continued to dominate the charts with superb soul, funk and disco, while white ‘rock’ music bored the world with its epic pretensions and noodling. This is a generalisation, but it is not far from the truth.

Whatever the case, soul, funk and disco were almost entirely absent from British rock festivals because, parochially, they were not considered appropriate for the target audience. This has changed to a remarkable degree, to the extent that even the whitest guitar-based rock bands will beg black producers and rap artists to inject a little bit of modernity, coolness and rhythm into their albums, and the charts are now almost exclusively the preserve of what is discombobulatingly called rhythm and blues, or electronic dance music, or the last tendrils of rap, hip-hop, garage, grime and all those myriad other sub-genres which are basically black in origin.

Glastonbury was rather slow in adapting to this change, for sure – but that’s because whatever the organisers tell you, their target audience these days is middle-aged white folk who want to hear the bands of their youth. And maybe laugh along with Rolf Harris performing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ while ogling the kids. With tickets at £280 a pop, the young simply cannot afford the hideous ‘Glasto’, even if they wanted to go.

The question for Sir Lenny, then, is why should rock festivals be perfectly representative, statistically, of the British demographic? Does everything have to appeal to everyone equally? It would make the world a terribly boring place, I think. Should we force black people to go to rock festivals, or have quotas for ticket sales? This notion that we should all have the same tastes and interests is surely misguided, given that we come from a multitude of different cultural backgrounds.

When I hear Sir Lenny talking about Glastonbury, I am reminded of Sadiq Khan fretting over the fact that there are too few black cyclists on the roads of his benighted satrapy and that something needs to be done. But if more black folks wished to ride a bicycle, they would pop round to Halfords and buy one – nothing is stopping them. Similarly, the drive to force black people to take a nice walk in the country seems to me misplaced. Not everybody wants to climb a mountain or dawdle alongside a river. Black culture both here and in the US is defiantly, steadfastly, urban. There is no great impetus within ethnic minority communities to settle in rural areas (where, incidentally, property prices are often a lot cheaper than they are in our cities). As Chris Rock once pointed out, black folk don’t do the countryside any more.

Anyway, in an attempt to make Sir Lenny happy, the Glastonbury organisers have got the black Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar headlining one night this year. I hope someone will film the rictus grins of the 194,000 white middle-aged mums and dads as they pretend to enjoy his set.

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