Why I hate samba
A shorter version of this piece first appeared in the Occupied Times of London
I have a confession. I don’t like samba. OK, that’s not quite true. I often enjoy it. It’s cheering. But I have a political objection.
But that’s probably not where I should start. Perhaps more to the point, I don’t like dressing up on protests. If I am going on a demo then I am putting my body in a place in order to say that I, Adam Ramsay, believe this. Because it will make my life better, or because that will make worse the lives of the people I love, or of people who I have never met, but about whom I still care. I am not anonymous. I am not a clown. I am me. Because that’s the most I can be.
And, whilst sometimes for a photo op it can easier to get coverage if we are dressed up, I prefer not to. Because I think people are more likely to identify with us if we are authentically ourselves. They are more likely to take us seriously. What is the point in demonstrating that fictional characters are against something?
Of course, I understand why we dress up. Every time I go on a demonstration, I get a little embarrassed. I’m British. We are raised to queue, drink tea, and be cynical: the cultural echo of our war traumatised grandparents and of years of imperial drilling still haunts us down the generations. We don’t express emotion in public. And so we combat our awkwardness by copying the main traditions in which we are allowed to be raucous – those of the theatre, and the circus. We step out of ourselves, and pretend to be someone else. Because that someone else can be liberated from the shackles of Britishness.
But in pretending to be someone else, we take away what is most profound about protest. That we are real people, not fictitious representations. And we are there because we care.
And that authenticity often seems to be missing from British demonstrations. And this is why I don’t like samba. Do any of us listen to Samba music other than at protests? What do we really listen to? Why don’t we represent ourselves at protests as we truly are? Why isn’t the music we listen to from our culture? Now, when I say ‘our culture’, I don’t mean Morris Dancing – unless you genuinely do it. I mean whatever it is that you and I listen to and do in the rest of our lives – whether that’s Rap or Rachmaninov.
In my generation (I’m 26) many of us haven’t grown up with a domestic protest culture. And it is always hard to know what to do when demonstrating – other than standing in, or walking through, a space, there isn’t really anything to do. And so we learn from others, and we mimic. We don’t chant that we are ‘anti-capitalist’. We chant ‘a-anti-anti-capitalista’. Because that’s what the Spanish speakers do. And Latin America has the best socialists, and Spain the best anarchists, so let’s copy them.
If we sing when we march, we sing Bella Ciao – a song about Italian struggles. Which is a lovely song, and so we should sing it. But I’ve never heard a British demonstration sing the song of the Suffragettes – based on a poem written by an early anarchist to protest against the rise of industrial capitalism – “Jerusalem”. And so it has been co-opted by conservatives as a nationalist song. I have rarely heard Scottish demonstrators sing Robert Burns’ early socialist anthem ‘a man’s a man’. Nor have I heard UK hip-hop, or Welsh male choirs, or dubstep.
Of course, mimicking can be good. As one prominent activist put it recently, the occupation of public spaces is a meme that is going feral. In itself, there is not a particular reason to go for this form of protest over any other (though it does hark back to an Irish tradition of protesting against one who has wronged you by sitting outside their house). But at a time when millions around the world are livid, but no one knew what do do, having something simple and repeatable – go and camp together in a public space – was crucial. And the mimicry has been extraordinarily powerful.
But when we copy the best bits of what others around the world are doing, let’s copy not by pretending to be them, but by being ourselves – a wonderfully multi-cultural, multi-linguistic group of people. And yes, let’s sing the songs of Italian Partisans, and use the chants of Latin America’s Bolivarian socialists. But let’s also teach them about who we are, about our many different cultural backgrounds, about the music our parents and our grandparents listened to, and the music we listen to today. And let’s remember that our cultures too – all of them – have proud histories of struggle.
The first demonstration I ever went on, I was playing in a band. It was my school pipe band – I was a snare drummer. We led a march through Perth against the closure of the local Accident and Emergency Unit. No one could ‘Other’ us. No one could define us as ‘abstract protesters’. We were clearly real – we were the local school band. And perhaps when we protest, we should be who we are – don’t let them put us in that abstract box ‘protester’. Come as us. Because that’s the best we can be. Because that’s honest. Because we are all rooted in communities, and it is for them that we stand up, and let’s make sure that the world understands that.