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'The currency of music is empathy': Billy Bragg on activism in a pandemic world

Billy Bragg performs at the Americana Music Association Honors & Awards Show Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Zaleski
Billy Bragg performs at the Americana Music Association Honors & Awards Show Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn.

Singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg is finally getting to tour in support of a record he put out last year. The record, called The Million Things That Never Happened, took shape during the first lockdown in the UK.

NPR calls it a "blood pressure-lowering testament to enduring love and trust" while Bragg has been talking about the empathy he hopes his music can provide to his fans.

Billy Bragg plays the Carolina Theatre of Durham on Wednesday, Sept. 28. He joined WUNC recently to talk about his music, his politics, and the state of humanity.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

In “Mid-Century Modern” you question your own beliefs formed when you were a young man, how they inform who you are today, and whether or not that's who you want to be. The line about the kids pulling down statues really reminded me of the young people who pulled down Silent Sam, the Confederate monument here in Chapel Hill. What do you take from young activists today and do you find it inspiring?

"I do find it inspiring. I find it challenging as well, because their politics is born out of a non-ideological time. You know, the politics that I grew up with in the 1980s were sparked by the struggle of the British mineworkers in 1984. And that was still quite ideological, you know, the language that they used was the language of Marxism, really. And I never quite adhered to that, I never quite got my head around that stuff.

"I look at the big political campaigns of the 21st century that have gained traction, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion here in the UK. And although they're very different issues, what they all have in common, is they're all about accountability. And I think that for the younger generation of activists, they seem to me to be more interested in accountability, not so dissimilar from my politics, because obviously I [wanted] economic accountability. But also, they also want accountability in the discourse.

"So they are asking questions of people who are gatekeepers on the debate, and who also have power in the debate. And this is creating a negative reaction, leading to the invention of tropes, like cancel culture, you know.

"I don't really think cancel culture exists, it's really just another form of accountability. And the idea that you can just have free speech and just free speech alone is enough to make you free, I don't think that's been borne out by what's happened. I mean the idea you could say whatever you want to say to whoever you want to say it whenever you want to say it with no comeback, that's not freedom. That's Donald Trump's Twitter feed. We've seen where that leads. So you need both the right to express your opinion, liberty, you need equality as well, the right for everybody to express their opinion. But you still have just everybody shouting at each other unless you have a way of holding people to account for what they're saying and what their behavior is."

The title track catalogs things that we missed when the pandemic was at its height. Was it difficult to sum up the losses so many people suffered?

"Well, no, because they're all so visible, aren't they? Whether it's, you know, you haven't met up with your mates for a while. That was difficult for some people, some people struggled, because of the lack of social connections they have with people. And then on top of that, you got the people who missed events in their lives that go much, much deeper than that: being present at the birth of a child, being able to say goodbye to someone when they passed away. I mean, these are things that people are not going to forget in a hurry.

"And I think that when we look back, you know, maybe the next generation will come along and say ask us about the pandemic. It's not going to be: 'What did you do in the pandemic, grandpa?' It's going to be: 'What didn't you do?' And we're going to look back and realize that the things that we missed most were the things that connected us the most. And I think that says a lot about who we are that we aren't just an individualist society that can exist without any need for social intercourse, social connection, that we are actually very, very social animals.

"And sometimes we need to act in the common good. You know, sometimes we have to put personal liberty to one side for a moment while we do something together that resolves an issue that we're all facing. I think this is really important because that's exactly what we're gonna have to do to deal with the climate crisis, we're gonna have to work together, not just community level, country level, but globally, we're gonna have to work together to help communities adjust to the new reality that we've created."

Empathy is the focus on a song you call the heart of this record. "I Will Be Your Shield" is both a plea and a promise.  How can music help people experience empathy which can seem in short supply these days?

"I've long believed that with regard to music, and I'm talking about any kind of music here, not just the sort of music that I make, that the currency of music is empathy. You know, you're listening to music in a way that makes you feel that you are not alone. You're not the only person who's ever faced up to this thing. You're not the only person who's, you know, if it's heartbreak, you're not the only person who's had this heartbreak. If it's joy, the record's giving out joy, you're taking some of that joy. You know empathy is what connects people to the music that we make."

Singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg plays the Carolina Theatre of Durham tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 28.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.