The first time I saw alternative punk rock musician Billy Bragg perform live was in 1987 here at Victoria University. The second time was last Sunday, almost exactly 25 years later, but this time at the more upmarket venue of the Wellington Opera House. The audience was somewhat older.
He told us his own story of how at age 19 in the late ‘70s he found himself working in a London office where there was an accepted culture of racism and homophobia. Feeling in the minority, he never spoke out against it – until he attended the Rock against Racism rally which included The Clash. There he found himself amongst 100,000 like-minded young people and realised he was not alone in his thinking. Yet, it was not the music or the speeches that day that changed his world – it was being in the audience; the togetherness, the mutual response to ideals – that gave him the courage to stand up for what he believed in.
As a left-wing activist Billy Bragg’s own music is intended to be stirring and motivating. The point he makes now is that bands and music can’t change the world; it is the audience who have the ability to do that. As a singer/songwriter, he can provide the perspective, a different attitude and even the inspiration, but ultimately it is what the audience does after they have left the concert that makes the difference. It’s his faith in the contributions, however small, that people can make towards change that has kept him coming back on stage for 25 years.
I guess the point I’m making is that next time you are sitting in an audience, whether it is a lecture, seminar or concert and something from the stage strikes a chord with you, don’t let it pass you by. It’s easy for the fervour and energy gained by being part of an audience to wane afterwards. It may not necessarily be a major turning point that will change the way you think forever – it could simply be something that gives you confidence in yourself to make difference. You might just change the world.