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Brit Singer Billy Bragg: Protest Music is 'Not an Agent' of Change

El Humilde Fotero del Pánico/Flickr

Over the past 30 years, one of the enduring voices of protest to emerge from Britain has been singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. In turns angry, reflective, and funny, Bragg has developed a following in the U.S., as well.

But his songs don’t just reflect his activism – he sings about love and relationships, too. He'll bring his unique style to Milwaukee's Turner Hall Ballroom on September 24 at 7 PM.

Known for blending elements of folk music, punk rock and the protest song cannon, Bragg has come a long way since he was first introduced to protest music. He was a 19-year old office worker in England, where racist and sexist language was casually used, when he went to his first protest on racial inequality. The experience transformed him.

“I made an effort to stand up for what I believed in and challenge these guys,” Bragg says. “It wasn’t the bands at that event that gave me the courage for my convictions; it was being in the audience that made me realize that I wasn’t alone. I was in the majority of my generation, even though I was the minority at work.”

Bragg says the relationship between music and activism has changed.

Credit Anthony Griffin,
Billy Bragg.

"I think the idea from the 1960s that, if we all sang these songs together that the world will change, was really – it wasn’t naïve, it was that it came from the fact that music was the only social medium available to people back then, so everything went through music," he says.

But the situation is different today. Bragg recently blogged that “the notion you can change the world by singing songs can only serve to undermine activism.” He believes music and art can reflect society, but not change it. The role of the musician is to articulate what society thinks and feels.

“We are a catalyst, but not an agent,” he says.

His goal is that his performances inspire transformational change in people, recharging the listeners who will hopefully then go out and make a difference.

“Activism is the antidote to cynicism,” Bragg says.

Even if the role of music in affecting change has shifted, the issues at stake haven't changed a whole lot. While sifting through old music, Bragg says he found that Woody Guthrie’s music could be applied to the healthcare debates, marriage equality, and international politics. The problems are still around, he says, which is why they are called struggles.

Lately, Bragg sings about accountability. The songs are aimed at governments tapping phone lines, bankers who have mishandled money, and even accountability in relationships.

His most recent album, Tooth & Nail (released March 2013), is a little more reflective than his typical "angry songs." That's because Bragg used the album as a way to process his mother’s recent passing.

But don't think he's giving up his angry style; rather, he says he can publish those songs more quickly through Youtube and his website.

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.