How musicians are reacting to the humanitarian disaster in Gaza

Why are so many acts dropping out of The Great Escape Festival?

How musicians are reacting to the humanitarian disaster in Gaza
Photo by Jakob Rubner / Unsplash

From SXSW and The Great Escape to Eurovision and the Oscars, a Browsers' Digest of the music world's response to the conflict in Gaza, in reaction to the Hamas terror attack on October 7th...

Conflict? War? Or "genocide" (Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur, March 2024)? Or man-made humanitarian crisis? Whatever words we choose to use, they all feel small compared to the lived realities of civilians impacted by what's happening in Gaza.

Every morning and every night, my social media feed is filled with photos of children with bandaged heads in sprawling tent cities. Occasionally it is Instagram asking you to opt to unblur disturbing pictures of bloodied limbs protruding from the rubble. On Twitter, YouTube and the rest, there are unending video clips of death and human suffering, most likely filmed on a phone just like the one I'm holding...

It's an obvious thing to write but our phones and the platforms we use have become a portal. They bind us to our nearest and dearest. They allow us to see our friends front row at shows or to ride around in the hands of mega stars.

We are used to seeing humanitarian crisis filtered through more formal means of TV news reports, BBC World Service bulletins and newspaper front-pages (or in books and films years later). Back then, scenes of life in a war zone were not sat alongside everyday posts from our school friend announcing their new job, our cousin bragging about their honeymoon or celebs at that opulent Met Gala thingy (tbf, I only know what it is because of the Tax the Rich dress that AOC wore a few years ago).

This interconnectivity combined with disintermediation adds a closeness. We’re quite literally ‘living our best lives’ and seeing in high resolution people dying in the same timelines.

The removal of intermediaries like institutions and journalists and experts also increases the risk of disinformation. There's such complexity in the Middle East and conflation online, which can make it hard to know what to believe when you see footage of things like humanitarian aid being destroyed (note: BBC still says this is unverified) whilst the previous and the next video in your feed shows a baby starving.

The peer-to-peer nature of the modern internet also means these distressing posts appear on platforms full of billionaire-backed propaganda and the highly charged - often abusive - bad faith back and forths, pile-ons, and confirmation bias. This toxicity, atop of complexity and conflation, has kept many musicians I've spoken to silent, despite how simple it is to use their platform to speak up for those suffering. The least they can do is share fundraisers but you’d hope that would evolve to include asking our governments to call for it to end, for aid to be let in, and for corporations to stop funding what's happening. And to release the hostages but it’s not like our govt has as direct a line to Hamas as they do Netanyahu.

Amidst the pockets of silence, many musicians and music fans are responding online and on the streets to the unfolding events (much of which is being investigated by international courts) in reaction to the Hamas terror attacks on October 7th.

In this newsletter I'm going to try to compile some of what has been said by musicians to address the humanitarian crisis:

Why are so many acts dropping out of The Great Escape Festival?

Breaking: On the eve of the festival & music industry conference, a total of 122 acts, constituting approximately a quarter of the programme, have now withdrawn from The Great Escape, which is due to begin in Brighton tomorrow, 15th May.

A press release from Bands Boycott Barclays says:

Artists cite the festival’s partnership with Barclays, “bankrolling genocide” through its financial investments in companies supplying weapons to the Israeli military, as their reason for withdrawing.

Last week, Massive Attack backed the boycott of Great Escape. Here's their statement:

Barclays have direct ties to the Gaza conflict reportedly in the billions, which is why artists are withdrawing from the festival.

Last month, over half of the festival’s lineup signed an open statement calling on the festival to drop its partnership with Barclays, which is on the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) list. The statement is supported by a further 1,000 musicians and industry professionals calling on the festival to drop the partnership.

A full list of all the acts that have dropped out is available here.

The musician-led collective have also responded to Nick Cave's comments encouraging artists to play:

If boycotting Barclays sounds familiar, previously the likes of Brian Eno have spoken up about their connections to the fossil fuel industry. And guess what?

Barclays has announced it will no longer provide direct funding for new oil and gas projects.
The banking giant also says it will restrict lending to energy businesses that plan to expand their fossil fuel production.
Barclays is a major lender to the fossil fuel industry, but has been coming under mounting pressure to curb its support for the sector.
Campaign groups welcomed the move, but insisted it did not go far enough.
According to a report, external from environmental group Rainforest Action Network, Barclays was the biggest funder of the fossil fuel sector in Europe between 2016 and 2021.
It provided just under $16.5bn (£13bn) in 2022, although that was significantly lower than in previous years. In 2019 and 2020, the figure was more than $30bn.
However, the bank has been under pressure from environmental campaigners, shareholder activists and even celebrities to curb its support.
Barclays to end direct financing of new oil and gas fields
The banking giant has been coming under mounting pressure to curb its support for fossil fuels.

The Great Escape isn't the only festival to face boycotts

Earlier this year, bands pulled out of South by Southwest (SXSW) in Texas over the arts festival's sponsorship with the US Army.

Scores of Musicians Who Dropped Out of SXSW Protest for Palestine in Austin

"You can see how artists and collective power can indeed break this festival if they don't meet the demands of kicking out these warmongers," the founder of United Musicians And Allied Workers told Jezebel.
On Thursday, scores of artists and allies of Palestine like New York City punk band cumgirl8 gathered on 800 Congress Ave, the U.S. Military’s official stage, to call for a divestment from profiteers of war, as well as fair pay and free attendance at the festival for the artists who perform there. The night before, UMAW and Austin For Palestine put on a showcase that featured a number of the bands that pulled out of the festival.
Scores of Musicians Who Dropped Out of SXSW Protest for Palestine in Austin
Since 2007, Jezebel has been the Internet’s most treasured source for everything celebrities, sex, and politics...with teeth.

There was also this statement

SXSW ‘Fully Respects’ Artists Boycotting Festival Due to U.S. Army Sponsorship: ‘We Are Witnessing Unspeakable Tragedies’ and ‘Repressive Regimes’
As artists boycott SXSW due to its U.S. Army sponsorship, the festival says it ‘fully respects’ their actions amid ‘the rise of repressive regimes.’

In a piece in Kerrang!, campaigner and musician Janey Starling explained:

Boycotts play a key role in the international solidarity movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. Palestinians have called for people across the world to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which calls on people to strategically withdraw support for companies and institutions that help to uphold the persecution of the Palestinian people.
In the music industry, organisations like Artists For Palestine and PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), encourage bands to withdraw from festivals that are sponsored by such institutions.
PACBI have urged all artists to withdraw from official SXSW events, saying: “We applaud the artists who have boycotted SXSW, often at great personal cost.”
Why your favourite bands are boycotting SXSW this year
After the likes of Scowl, GEL and Sprints pulled out of SXSW, Kerrang! Award-winner, activist, and protest pundit Janey Starling explains why artists are boycotting the festival and what they’re hoping to achieve…

And after mentioning this year's boycott, we should probably add that SXSW is now due to come to London in 2025

SXSW announces London edition to take place in June 2025
SXSW is coming to London backed by a shadowy web of offshore companies, endorsed by the Mayor of London - and with a PR boss who conveniently worked as a senior press advisor in the London mayor’s office for sixteen years

Should A Music Publication Even Be Writing This?

When I rebooted Drowned in Sound, I promised myself it would have a sense of purpose, and I've written a bit more about this here.

The bleak news is hard to process but here's a little summary of a few things in my timeline:

It was recently reported that 1 in 4 people in Gaza is facing famine, whilst trucks struggled to get in food and medical supplies from the warehouses that are a few miles across the border. Last week, the head of the UN's World Food Programme said displaced Palestinians were experiencing a "full-blown famine".

MSF says:

The health system is being dismantled resulting in devastating consequences for people trapped in Gaza. According to OCHA, 24 out of the 36 hospitals in Gaza are now out of service.

BBC reports:

Almost 450,000 Palestinians have fled from Rafah over the past week, the UN says, as Israeli tanks reportedly push deeper into the southern Gaza city. "People face constant exhaustion, hunger and fear," warned the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa

That's the UN agency that the UK and US instantly suspended funding to following allegations, and now await further evidence before restoring it.

Reuters reports:

UK wants 'absolute guarantee' of no repeat of UNRWA allegations, says Cameron

NPR reports:

Israel seized the Rafah crossing with Egypt last week as part of an assault on the nearby city of the same name, aimed at rooting out Hamas militants after a Hamas attack last October killed almost 1,200 Israeli civilians and security forces, according to Israeli government figures. Gaza's health ministry says more than 35,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, have been killed in seven months of war.

Confession: Despite all of these news reports, elements of this newsletter have sat in my drafts for a while, as I'm well aware how important a topic this is to get right and - due to assumptions of intent - getting wording wrong can result in a pile on. Which is obviously nothing compared to actual drone attacks.

Those bombs keep raining down and citizen journalists share videos and photos of the consequences. I say citizen journalists because months on from the terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7th, reporters from every major media outlet find themselves resorting to writing open letters to access the conflict zone... and they're still trying to get in.

Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford said that like many other journalists, she and her crew have “spent the bulk of the past nearly five months busting a gut to get into Gaza” but they had never managed to get past the Rafah border crossing from Egypt.
In an article for Sky News she highlighted the fact that around 90 journalists are believed to have been killed since the war began on 7 October – 20 killed per month or one every other day. “Can you take that in? Because I am finding that hard to.”
She said that usually media organisations usually rotate staff in and out of a warzone “to allow for recharging, recovering and allowing fresh eyes and minds on events which are physically and mentally exhausting and debilitating” but local journalists in Gaza have been stuck inside and only a few have been able to leave.

Meanwhile, because of this lack of access, every stat or story or source that comes out of Gaza is met with a hail of conjecture.

However, this brave and powerful reporting from the West Bank by Isobel Yeung is a must watch on iPlayer

The Other War
Isobel Yeung investigates the conduct of the Israeli military in the West Bank
West Bank: Israel Defense Forces accused of possible war crime
UN expert says death of 8-year-old appears to violate law after reviewing evidence gathered by BBC.

Many will say there's no place in music journalism for social commentary and in the next breath tell musicians to stay out of politics, which is not a view I hold. I grew up reading Hunter S. Thompson's reporting from the political campaign trail whilst listening anti-corporate punk, politically awakening hip-hop, and civil rights soul anthems.

Apparently I'm meant to read sentences like this next one and shove my typing fingers over my eyes and pretend I didn't feel anything reading it...

"Gaza is the deadliest place in the world for civilians," that is the sort of sentence that in this attention economy you read and struggle to process, until award winning global affairs journalist Tara Kangarlou continues speaking to Sky News' Yalda Hakim, and says:

"80% of the population is displaced (1.7m of 2.2m people), 1 out of 3 children is malnourished. People are dying like no other humanitarian crisis that I've covered and I've covered a lot of humanitarian crises in the world. This is like nothing else."

The chair of London's Southbank Centre, Misan Harriman made this really powerful and chilling Instagram video. It requires a trigger warning but - and I write this covered in goosebumps after rewatching it - it's a brief but important monologue with heart-shattering stats about pregnant women and mothers looking after newborns. It's also a short piece to camera about breaking your silence and it ends with a message about the way our media and people with a platform are looking away to avoid the discomfort.

This is Misan's line that inspired me to write this:

"If you want to focus on one thing with regard to this conflict, focus on being a voice for newborn babies and pregnant mothers." - Misan Harriman

I also totally concur with him that our media feels broken.

Where once we may have had journalistic rigour that endeavoured to present fair and balanced, fact-based, human-centred reporting about the people we share a planet with. Journalists dying for the truth and faces consequences for holding those in power to account. Now there's a media ecosystem dominated by emotive, attention grabbing, quick-click headlines and angry men shouting the opinions at you from offshore billionaire backed TV stations.

What happened on October 7th was an atrocity - being investigated as war crimes - and it took place at a music festival, somewhere that we should all feel safe and free. However, in the music press, on October 7th, 8th, 9th and beyond, compared to terror attacks like the Bataclan, there was notably not the same level of media coverage.

Maybe it's due to staff cuts and a lack of reporters on the ground to verify information but coverage of Oct 7th was slow, especially in the music press. It was lightly covered (almost as lightly as many of the subsequent boycott movements and protests or even showing solidarity for artists speaking up, in much the same way many will do if an artist speaks about climate change), but perhaps due to the complicated issues that make you feel as if you need to be a Middle East academic to write anything about it, the coverage felt muted.

Tbf, I certainly didn't feel like I was confident in my grasp of things to say or write anything for fear of not phrasing things right or discovering I was amplifying misinformation. And yet here I am...

200+ days on, there are signs that Israel's "self defence" has led to a humanitarian crisis. The situation has become so bad that the tone of coverage - even in the music press - has shifted.

On social media, instead of distractions around interpretations of phrases, claims you can't trust footage because it's not from a verified media source (because the media can't get in) and febrile pile-ons, there are moments of clarity and calls for peace that aren't met with disdain.

For months it has felt like anyone who speaks up in an imperfect way, which does not address every single issue with all the correct caveats - tactically avoiding anything that in bad faith could be considered a trope - has been silenced (or at least those speaking up made to feel like they should be quiet).

Now, we see artists joining boycotts and the UK media beginning to reflect the views of YouGov polls.

If the device in your hand is a portal, what can you do with it right now? Apart from reading the below, here are three things collectively that may have an impact and won't cost you anything:

  1. Block celebs who refuse to speak up (NBC).
  2. Switch to a more ethical bank with a tool like MakeMoneyMatter.
  3. Email your MP to ask them to call for a ceasfire.


Inside the raging debate to watch Eurovision 2024: “This feels bigger than the contest”

Longtime fans and past performers have told NME about their decision to either boycott or not watch this year’s song contest amidst protests about Israel's inclusion:

This year’s contest has been dogged with controversy following the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and its decision to allow Israel to compete amongst the Israel-Palestine conflict. The move has been criticised as “cultural cover and endorsement for the catastrophic violence that Israel has unleashed on Palestinians” by organisations such as Queers for Palestine, who wrote an open letter to UK entry Olly Alexander to boycott the contest this year.
Inside the raging debate to watch Eurovision 2024: “This feels bigger than the contest”
Longtime fans and past performers on their decision to either boycott or watch this year’s contest amidst protests about Israel’s inclusion.

Why Ireland is one of the most pro-Palestinian nations in the world (6min listen)

Until 1921, what's now the Republic of Ireland was a British colony. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. And many Irish people say their experience of British occupation — as well as their own sectarian conflict, and 19th century famine — gives them empathy and shared history with the Palestinian struggle.
Why Ireland is one of the most pro-Palestinian nations in the world
One of the most pro-Palestinian nations in the world is not an Arab or Muslim country. It’s not even in the Middle East. Polls show Ireland has some of the highest support for the Palestinians.

Blindboy on Israel & Palestine, Eminem and Why Dogs Don’t Exist

Blindboy Boatclub is the Irish broadcaster, author and musician behind The Blindboy Podcast, a massively popular show mixing short fiction, comedy and interviews.
Blindboy sat down with Ash Sarkar for a freewheeling discussion about everything from Eminem’s ’90s style and the situation in Palestine to why cats are magical.
Blindboy on Israel & Palestine, Eminem and Why Dogs Don’t Exist | Ash Sarkar Meets Blindboy | Novara Media
Blindboy Boatclub is the Irish broadcaster, author and musician behind The Blindboy Podcast, a massively popular show mixing short fiction, comedy and interviews. His new short story collection, Topographia Hibernica, is inspired by the human, animal and emotional geography of Ireland. Blindboy sat down with Ash for a freewheeling discussion about everything from Eminem’s ’90s style and the situation in Palestine to why cats are magical.…

Boygenius’s Grammy 2024 Red-Carpet Look Included An ‘Artists for Ceasefire’ Pin

Artists for Ceasefire is a collective of musicians, actors and advocates who have come together in response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza. Many artists over the last few months have candidly used their voice to call for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Some artists like Kehlani, Dua Lipa and Yara Shahidi have also signed a letter demanding that President Biden stand against Israel’s bombing of Gaza and facilitate the safe release of hostages. Historically, the red carpet has been used as an opportunity to make a statement, whether sartorial or political.
Boygenius’s Grammy 2024 Red-Carpet Look Included An ‘Artists for Ceasefire’ Pin
Their coordinating look also included references to their song “We’re In Love” and Elliott Smith.

Oscars 2024: Ramy Youssef, Billie Eilish and more call for ceasefire

Explaining his decision to support Artists4Ceasefire, Youssef told Variety on the red carpet: “We’re calling for immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza. We’re calling for peace and lasting justice for the people of Palestine. It’s a universal message of, ‘Let’s stop killing kids. Let’s not be part of more war.’ No one has ever looked back at war and thought a bombing campaign was a good idea.”
Youssef continued: “To be surrounded by so many artists who are willing to lend their voices, the list is growing. A lot of people are going to be wearing these pins tonight. We want to use where we’re at to speak to people’s hearts. There’s a lot of talking heads on the news, this is a space of talking hearts. We’re trying to have this big beam to humanity. There’s no other route.”
The Poor Things actor concluded: “It’s taking so long, the president has called for it in the State of the Union. We need to look at ourselves and be honest, if the leadership supposedly thinks that should happen, why has it not happened? That’s what we’re all encouraging everyone to be vocal about.”
Oscars 2024: Ramy Youssef and Billie Eilish call for ceasefire
At the red carpet before the 96th edition of the Oscars, Billie Eilish and ‘Poor Things’ star Ramy Yousseff used the occasion to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Not all the commentary has been super serious... especially on the platform formerly known as Twitter:

Sally Rooney: Killing in Gaza has been supported by Ireland’s ‘good friend’ in the White House

Many experts in international law are describing the war on Gaza as a genocide. Many more may come to agree, when the true scale of death and devastation is revealed. After all, Israel has not permitted any external media organisations to enter Gaza since last October, except under strict military escort. Palestinian journalists inside the territory have meanwhile been killed at a rate indicative of intentional targeting. In the whole of last year, 99 journalists worldwide were killed in the course of their reporting; 72 of those were Palestinian journalists killed by Israel. This prohibition on external media and consistent killing of reporters suggests a concerted effort to suppress the facts.
Since the start of the onslaught, more than 65,000 tonnes of primarily US-made explosives have been dropped on the Gaza Strip. Each new airstrike rains down more devastation, demolishing more infrastructure, trapping more helpless people under the rubble, inflicting more catastrophic injuries. Each additional death leaves behind more irreparable grief and heartbreak. And now, as Israel continues to block the flow of aid, a manmade famine is taking hold. Human beings are slowly and excruciatingly dying of starvation, not through crop failure or natural disaster, but as a result of intentional Israeli and US policy.
Sally Rooney: Killing in Gaza has been supported by Ireland’s ‘good friend’ in the White House
Our Government is basking in the moral glow of condemning the bombers, while preserving a cosy relationship with those supplying the bombs

Naomi Klein: The Zone of Interest is about the danger of ignoring atrocities – including in Gaza

“Genocide becomes ambient to their lives”: that is how Glazer has described the atmosphere he attempted to capture in his film, in which his characters attend to their daily dramas – sleepless kids, a hard-to-please mother, casual infidelities – in the shadow of smokestacks belching out human remains. It’s not that these people don’t know that an industrial-scale killing machine whirs just beyond their garden wall. They have simply learned to lead contented lives with ambient genocide.
It is this that feels most contemporary, most of this terrible moment, about Glazer’s staggering film. More than five months into the daily slaughter in Gaza, and with Israel brazenly ignoring the orders of the international court of justice, and western governments gently scolding Israel while shipping it more arms, genocide is becoming ambient once more – at least for those of us fortunate enough to live on the safe sides of the many walls that carve up our world. We face the risk of it grinding on, becoming the soundtrack of modern life. Not even the main event.
The Zone of Interest is about the danger of ignoring atrocities – including in Gaza | Naomi Klein
If Jonathan Glazer’s brave Oscar acceptance speech made you uncomfortable, that was the point

Only Revolutionary Love Can Save Us Now

Martin Luther King Jr’s 1967 speech condemning the Vietnam War offers a powerful moral compass as we face the challenges of our time.

Only Revolutionary Love Can Save Us Now
Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech condemning the Vietnam War offers a powerful moral compass as we face the challenges of our time.