Video: 'We need a radical sea change' — music and politics with Grace Petrie

January 5, 2023

Grace Petrie is an inspirational "socialist, feminist, lesbian, left-wing protest singer". She received great acclaim after performances at the Woodford Folk Festival, described as the "best, funniest, boppiest, most warm hearted protest singer I've seen in ages".

She is currently touring Australia with her latest album Connectivity. Green Left's Kamala Emanuel spoke to Petrie before her January 4 gig in Brisbane.

What inspired you to pursue political song writing?

I always wanted to be a musician long before I was interested in politics. I started writing songs emulating the pop songs on the radio. I always knew I was gay, so when I was in my teens writing heartbreak songs I was writing songs about girls.

It wasn't until I started playing gigs, when I was 17 to 18, when people started speaking to me as if [singing about girls] was a political move. So that was a soft launch.

Then, in 2010,  the Conservatives got into power in Britain and that radicalised me. I'd lived a sheltered life. I started to feel — particularly as a gay person and a woman — that my rights aren't something I can take for granted.

There was a sense under [Tony Blair's] New Labour, despite enormous faults, that the major battles were over. Then the 2010s came in and there was austerity, an "us versus them" culture and the demonisation of refugees.

It was accidental [that I wrote about politics], but I've always written about things that have emotionally affected me and politics does.

How do you see music, culture and arts fitting in to social struggles?

At the end of the day, songs can't change the world that much.

Billy Bragg's take is that songs can't change the world, but people can change the world and songs change people. That's a nice way of looking at it.

The times I've tried to use music, or whatever platform I have, in a practical way, like the month of benefit shows I did for the [British] Labour Party in the 2019 election campaign and it was resoundingly unsuccessful.

The criticism you face is that you're just "preaching to the converted". But what I've come to conclude is that the power of community [through music] to put gas back in your tank is invaluable. That's the way I look at it now.

The people who come to my shows are often the most incredible activists. When those people come together and come out of a night of hearing everybody singing the same thing it is a confirmation that I'm not alone: there are more people who want things to change.

We might not win, but we definitely won't win if we don't try.

What gives you hope?

People younger than me give me immense hope. The climate activists that are coming up have an unbelievable burden on their shoulders, but that is inspiring an uncompromising urgency.

I do believe the old politics are dying and that people under 30 grasp the magnitude of the challenge we face in terms of the climate and economic inequality.

This system is broken; it's been broken for a long time. But now I feel like we're experiencing its death rattle.

The young people coming up 15 to 20 years behind me are not messing around. They're like: we have to change everything and we have to do it yesterday.

How do you see the anti-trans backlash against advances for queer politics?

We have a huge problem with transphobia in Britain: it's become completely legitimised. It is definitely the position of the government which they're trying to implement in policy.

It's heart breaking to me as a queer person that we're pitted against each other. There is a lot of discussion about the erasure of butch lesbians.

For me as a butch lesbian it is frustrating to see the most homophobic and misogynist elements of British media and culture who have materially contributed to the persecution of people like me my entire life now saying "we're just really worried about the butch lesbians" and I'm like "Are you? Since when?"

It's always been the case throughout history that as soon as we allow one group's rights to be debatable it's a very short leap for the rest of the community's rights to be debatable.

Resisting transphobia from a moral standpoint is the right thing to do, but I also think that the people who are oppressing trans folks are not going to stop there.

We often see groups hostile to trans rights also attack abortion access. Are there attempts to wind that back in Britain?

There is definitely the will from some actors. And it is the alliance of those same groups. I'm loath to even say their name but there is an organisation called the LGB Alliance that are just a transphobic hate group.

It recently came out that their headquarters are in the same building as some of the most far right, pro-Brexit, climate deniers. You follow the money back and it's all the same people.

It all comes back to the same place as it has in the United States. The most prominent transphobic organisations and voices are absolutely in bed with anti-abortion agendas.

It is unbelievably enraging that some of our most prominent feminists are in bed with this and they can't even see it.

What do you think about Keir Starmer's attacks on the left of Labour?

I think it is morally bankrupt. But further than that, it is short sighted and bad strategy: it's not going to win.

Labour came closest to winning under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. That surprised the entrenched establishment and they thought we've got to throw everything at this guy next time. And they really did.

There were some mistakes under Corbyn's leadership, but ultimately there were half a million people in the party under Corbyn, which is more than there ever were under Tony Blair.

I was part of that movement. I was campaigning alongside those people. I was a member at that time. I'm not any more.

I saw with my own eyes. There were a lot of young people. It was a real injection of hope and enthusiasm. Labour between 2015 and 2019 represented the idea that things can be better.

Starmer was determined to rout the left from the party, which is fundamentally a betrayal of the platform he was elected on.

Late-stage capitalism doesn't have the answers for the challenges we face environmentally and economically.

When I see Starmer trying to outflank the Tories on immigration and "King and country" then "your old road is rapidly aging". We need radical sea-change in Britain and he is not the person to deliver it.

[Petrie's Australian tour includes performances at Gold Coast (January 5); Sydney (January 7); Blue Mountains (January 8); Canberra (January 10); Adelaide (January 12); Cygnet Folk Festival (January 13-15); Franklin (January 17); Hobart (January 18); Melbourne (January 19); Geelong (January 20); Illawarra Folk Festival (January 21-22). More details at]

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