Grace Petrie is a folk singer who has worked her way up from working the pub scene to some of the top festivals in the UK. I met Grace Petrie several years ago when I was working at a festival. She was warm, funny and kind.
Grace Petrie’s music is very much protest song. She sings a couple of non-protest songs such as Northbound (about travelling on the motorway). When Grace has her full band, the sound is something fantastic. Petrie is a good musician who can write a catchy tune and have you humming said catchy tune for days. Black Tie is the biggest earworm offender!
The track Emily Davison Blues is cleverly written. “If all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put this country back together again…” Emily Wilding Davison was one of the most famous suffragettes in the UK. She died after throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, drawing worldwide attention to the issue of women having the right to vote.
My problem is the lyrics of Petrie’s songs. I was a frontline worker for 20 years. I know that Petrie does not have any experience in frontline work and her songs are basically the heavily biased bleatings of The Guardian put to music. I found this very frustrating. When I saw Petrie live, the band sounded amazing. The lyrics of each song were inaccurate to say the least.
Most of Petrie’s songs mention LGBT issues or are solely about LGBT issues. However, Petrie’s interpretation of these issues is hard left. Listening to her lyrics (“looking down the barrel of a gun”, “year eleven hell”) you would think that Petrie is a citizen of Afghanistan, not the most liberal country in the world, England. Yes, the UK is not perfect, it definitely is not. Yet Petrie speaks and sings as though she currently has a terribly persecuted life. She is a big name on the folk scene. The folk scene is firmly on the left and has several prominent performers who are butch lesbians. A lot of the straight women on the folk scene are butch. The festival I first saw Petrie at last summer was headlined by Chris While and Julie Matthews and their friends – two butch lesbians and more lesbians. Yet Petrie was complaining about how tough it is to be a woman who wears masculine clothes.
I wear both masculine and feminine clothes and most people don’t even think about it. Some do, but most don’t because what is deemed “masculine” is what a lot of working class women from all backgrounds wear. I am from the generation above Petrie, and we really did suffer – and many LGBT in normal, regular jobs still do suffer. Petrie – self employed on the folk scene and Gen Y – seems to repeat rhetoric rather than real life, “lived” experiences.
The line from Black Tie, “And the images that fucked you were a patriarchal structure” is a line Petrie declares she is proud of. Two years ago, it was found that 53% online misogynistic comments were made by women. Most men really don’t care if a woman is butch or feminine or anywhere in between. The people who uphold the stereotype of what women “should” look like are women and a proportion of gay men.
What also does not help Petrie’s likeability as a musician is that she introduces herself with a list of labels: “I’m a socialist, communist, lesbian…” This really does put people off her, unless they are hard leftists like a woman in the audience at the festival who said to her boyfriend, “She’s gay. I don’t know what her name is. This is what my course is all about!” She ignored the gay woman sat next to her (me) and got up and asked a straight person Petrie’s name.
Despite me being an ardent folkie, I also LOVE quality rap. I’m definitely not talking about Stormzy or Eminem. Last year, I fell head over heels with tracks laid down by Indigenous Australian rapper Briggs. I first heard of Briggs because he and Dr Gurrumul did the theme tune for the amazing Aboriginal sci fi drama Cleverman. Briggs said with him rapping and Gurrumul singing in his language, they were mixing modern Black music with traditional music. From watching that interview, I looked up Briggs on youtube, and he’s been firmly on my playlist since.
Like Petrie, Briggs focuses on his group, indigenous Australians. However, unlike Petrie, Briggs does not blame the government and everyone else for indigenous people’s failings. In the track Bad Apples, he says, “They weren’t raised wrong, they weren’t raised at all. Where are their mothers huh? Where are their fathers huh?” Unlike Petrie, Briggs brings out my compassion. He says, “They call them good for nothing, I call them cousin. I call them brother and sister, I still love them.” The video shows Briggs sitting down with indigenous people and providing good apples for them to eat instead of the bad apples that lie rotting on the ground. As a former frontline worker, Briggs’ words make me ask myself what I can do for people in need. His words connect with my heart. Petrie’s words bounce off my brain and just annoy me.
As a teenager and young adult, as a gay person dealing with the regular threats and attacks in the street and hassle at work, I listened to Arrested Development. Arrested Development were a rap outfit from the Deep South who promoted education, hard work, religion and a good attitude, and they got out of rap when gangster rap emerged. They wanted nothing to do with the connotations that gangster rap brought. Twenty years later in Australia, Briggs and his friends have picked up the socially responsible rap baton and run with it.
The Hunt is about making the right choices. The video shows a young indigenous man walking away from gangs offering him drink and substance and rising above his situation. Gurrumul also sings on this track. The track Sheplife is a comedy track whose lyrics and video make fun of gangster rap as well as stereotypical behaviours: “hectic domestics out in the public view, does it look like I’m talking to you?!” and “your little sister’s got a bun in the oven. The baker that put it there is rocking your mother.” The video subverts gangster rap videos by making fun as well as the friendly gathering at the end showing people laughing and joking and writing messages for their family on the fridge.
Locked Up features an indigenous young women’s choir and Briggs giving the facts on the extremely high percentage of indigenous youth who are incarcerated in Australian prisons, along with the facts given by an official’s recorded speech. Above all, this is a banging choon.
That is the thing; Briggs makes banging choons. He has done a good critique of the Australian national anthem (I’m with him on the word “girt”). On a TV show, Briggs said of the national anthem, “It’s just not a good song.” All of Briggs’ tracks are fantastically put together, both in terms of music and lyrics. The videos clearly represent the songs. Briggs knows indigenous cultural history (he speaks the Yorta Yorta’s indigenous language and knows the cultural geography of indigenous peoples), Australian history, rap music and he is very, very funny. He makes fun of himself, he pokes fun at stereotypes of working class indigenous people, he makes fun of rap music and he is enjoyable to listen to and watch.
Unlike Petrie, Briggs really does exude pride in his group. Petrie has written a song called Pride, but all I hear in Petrie’s songs is a badly thought out intellectualisation of LGBT people and issues. Briggs’ music is bursting with pride and love. The track Here, which was the official track of the National Football League, Briggs raps the same words that are understood on two levels; pride in being indigenous and pride in football. The chorus is “When they ask me where I’m from I say “Here”, when they ask me where I belong I say “Here”, when they ask me where I’m going I say “Here”, when they ask me what I’m dreaming of I say “Here! You’ll never forget who we are!”
The first Briggs track I heard and watched on youtube was The Children Came Back which features singer-songwriter Dwayne EverettSmith and Gurrumul.
It combines three types of indigenous music which is pure genius. Again, the pride exudes as Briggs raps about his family members and indigenous history and says, “a man should be applauded when he stands up.” While Petrie’s lyrics finger wag and berate, Briggs stirs an aspirational spirit in anyone who listens to his tracks.
I also like the way that Briggs combines traditional music with rap and shows indigenous people of all skin shades and hair types, from the blond boy with straight hair to the dark brown teenage boy with afro-like hair in the Bad Apples video. I don’t like the way Petrie puts across the view that there’s only one way to be gay, which is to be a paid up Guardian reader who has no questions over trans ideology. Petrie has come under fire for saying she as a lesbian has had no problems with transwomen, which is not the story for many lesbians who have been aggressively told by a small number of people claiming to be transwomen that they must be attracted to them and have sex with their “lady dick” or the lesbians are transphobic. Unfortunately, this does happen and Petrie’s lack of acknowledgement and empathy for other lesbians who have other experiences – or even other views – to her does not win her fans.
Right now, I find Petrie to be a one-trick pony. She is in good company because although I admire Akala and Benjamin Zephaniah, I think they are one-trick ponies. They are incredibly intelligent men, but by making race their main domain, they do not see the whole picture. For example Akala puts down the disproportionate numbers of young Black men in the criminal justice system down to institutional racism purely rather than considering (like Trevor Phillips has) that some racial groups disproportionately commit different crimes. Akala blames everyone but the incarcerated young Black men who are always gang members. While Briggs does focus on indigenous issues, he does widen out his concerns, and he also states that indigenous people are to blame for some of their own problems, and he both criticises indigenous people and inspires them to lift themselves up.
I first came to folk music through the Levellers. The Levellers do protest songs, yes, but they also do songs about love, friendship, travelling, having fun and living the best life one can. Three members of the Levellers have mental health issues, three come from a the military, and while the Levellers support our troops and sing about the tragedy of war and the devastation it leaves in people’s lives, it is not all they do. I love singing and dancing and parting to the Levellers’ music. As a gay person, I find myself “represented” by the Levellers’ music, as do people from many different situations in life, even though none of the Levellers are LGBT and don’t sing expressly about LGBT people or issues. The same with other bands I love such as Ferocious Dog, Mad Dog McRea, 3 Daft Monkeys, Dreadzone and Afro-Celt Sound System. I find my life represented by their music, and by Briggs’ music, which I don’t find with Grace Petrie’s music.
On paper, I should be on Grace Petrie’s team music wise: I am a gay woman who is very into folk music. However, if it is a toss up between the music of Grace Petrie and Briggs, I am on Briggs’ team. Above everything, I find Petrie’s lyrics stressy and my life has enough stress, whereas Briggs’ lyrics connect with my heart, lift me up and make me laugh.
Petrie is in her first ten years of making music. She is a good hearted person and I believe she has a big future ahead of her. For now, I won’t be buying any of her albums. For now, Briggs remains on my playlist.