Uplands festival review: a solid first step towards a more equitable music industry

Denzel Himself and Girl Ray lead a music lineup that tops off an excellent day of workshops and panels aiming to promote access to the arts for underrepresented people in Waltham Forest

Attention school leavers! Fancy working in the UK music industry? Luckily for you, it’s simple enough. All you need to do is: a. be able-bodied, b. be male, c. preferably, be white, c. most importantly, have rich parents. 

Thanks to 13 years of Conservative rule, creativity is becoming a closed shop. The government’s disinterest in the UK’s arts sector has led to a series of deep and relentless cuts that show no signs of slowing, typified by the attitude of our current Prime Minister, who famously commanded artists to ‘look for other jobs’ throughout the pandemic. As always, it’s young people who have borne the brunt. In 2021, then-education secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans to cut funding to arts and design higher education courses by 50% to focus on “high-value subjects”, and last year, plans were also set in stone to ban student loans for students who fail English and Maths GCSEs. As a result, there has been 40% decrease in students taking art GCSEs in state schools, with The Guardian reporting that 12,000 fewer students taking music (a 27% reduction). This strangling of the pipeline is now starting to affect Britain’s creative industries as a whole, with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre finding in 2021 “that two-thirds of the increase in employment in the creative sector in the last five years was taken by those from a privileged background.”

All this has created a ticking timebomb right at the centre of the UK music industry. A sector that is still supposedly in rude health growing 6% in 2022 and contributing £4 billion to the country’s economy. However, behind the scenes, down at the grassroots level where the future Dua Lipa and IDLES get their start, things aren’t quite as rosy. The lack of support outlined above means that opportunities to make, play or generally get involved in music are becoming harder and harder to find. The knock-on is that music is becoming a middle-class activity; with UK Music’s 2022 Diversity Report, just 37% of industry workers identify as working class with Black respondents accounting for just 11.9% and people of Asian heritage just 4.7%; the Department of Opportunities also found that people from working-class origins earn 13.05% less than their most advantaged peers, meaning they effectively work 13% of the year, nearly one day in seven, for free.

This Saturday, music industry access organisation Route and promotion/events company Lanzarote took over a collection of breweries and community spaces near London’s Blackhorse Road station for Uplands, a day of action in response. A collaboration between the promoters and Waltham Forest Council, it was the first of a series of music-led events in partnership with the Borough’s Young Creators Programme, designed to support cultural activity and provide employment and training for 16-30s in the borough and increase local recruitment of music production and content roles paid at the London Living Wage. Kicking off at 11am and running right through until 11pm,  the day not only gave a lot of future promoters, producers and events workers a dose of valuable hands-on experience of running a complicated all-day programme, but it also gave anybody who showed up a chance to find out more about the music business. Throughout the day, panel discussions explore methods to break down the class barriers in music, give people a chance to work on fanzines and content creation and shared stories from people who’d managed to navigate their way into the biz. Simultaneously, local labels such as Dreamhouse, Mais Um and TheBrknRecord sold their wares at a small fair and chatted to punters, and there was even an industry ‘speed-dating’ event, where people could get a bit of face time with industry professionals and ask questions about ways into the industry.

Live music, though, was at the heart of the day. Wandering around the various venues that make up the Uplands Business Park, you’re confronted with live music of all shapes, sizes, flavours and formats, from the smoothed-out jazz of Peng Femme Jam and evocative alt-folk of Oscar Browne at Big Penny Social, to the obscure middle eastern jazz and club records pumping out from Beirut Groove Collective’s takeover of Signature Brew. Personally, the highlights come in the form of up-and-coming rapper JoeJas and experimental poet Isaiah Hull. The two sets couldn’t be more different but are both electrifying. Jas, bursting out of the tiny stage at Exhale Brewery, serves up a riot of party-style rap bangers filled with one-man stage dives, jokey crowd interactions and self-deprecating humour. On the other hand, Hull’s performance is a masterclass in studied intensity, with the Manchester-born, London-dwelling artist sat hunched over on a plastic chair, head covered by what looks like a child’s jacket. Accompanied throughout by a soundtrack of sinister industrial noise, his lyrics build and build throughout his relentless 45-minute set, eventually breaking into a remarkable emotional crescendo.

The main stage, such as it was, is at a place simply labelled ‘Caribbean Eatery’ on Google Maps. A squat 1970s warehouse that had a small bar and music inside and tables serving up jerk chicken, chickpea stew and rice and pea outside. It was here that the two headline sets of the day went off. First up was Denzel Himself [pictured below, left], and the South London-based experimental rapper didn’t disappoint. Introducing his set as a ‘collection of hardcore rap songs’ and decked out in metallic trousers and cowboy boots, he bounded through a set of punk-inspired hip hop that not only captivated the festival crowd but also managed to grab the attention of the off-shift Deliveroo drivers hanging around nearby. Defiantly unconventional, between each song, he allowed everyone a short, eight-second water break (“You’ve gotta remember to hydrate,” he tells the crowd; “hashtag hydration”). As the set comes to an end, Denzel commands the crowd to either “dance, or don’t dance, hashtag BodyAutonomy” and promptly leaps off the stage and performs the song patrolling the centre of the dance floor like a security guard. As the last notes sound, Denzel Himself simply throws down the mic, collects a gym bag from behind his equipment and stalks out of the front door, leaving behind a wall of distorted noise and a room of people simultaneously confused and amazed.

After a short break, the festival closed with a set from up-and-comers Girl Ray [pictured below, right]. In complete contrast to the brooding, head-scratching intensity of Denzel Himself, their set is a riot of disco-inflected dance-floor grooves and cheery pop melodies that almost anyone can get on board with. Sure enough, it takes the North Londoners about two songs to get hip-shaking down the front, and by the time the four-piece launch into ‘Everybody’s Saying That’, the venue has descended into groups of people all doing their best embarrassing dad dances. 

All in all, Uplands has been a positive example of what a community-led answer to music’s diversity and inclusion problems should look like. In a way, the day has been an illustration of how we should be attempting to revitalise and maintain DIY music in a microcosm, creating platforms for all, access to everyone and connections between grassroots creativity and commercial viability. However, as always, one swallow does not a summer make, and events like Uplands can only ever be part of the answer. Even in Walthamstow, with a council that clearly sees this as an issue and is flush with money from the Mayor’s office, one event like this will not change the fortunes of the Borough’s young people overnight, and it’s going to take a prolonged investment to create opportunities and access to move the dial in a meaningful way truly. And that’s in London; zooming out to the UK levels, it’s going to take hundreds of Uplands-type events until UK music starts to become a more equitable space for working class and otherwise underrepresented people.

But, as the organisers are keen to point out, this is all meant to be a solid first step. The challenge now is to keep this momentum going and keep building, with the immediate plan of getting follow-up events in the diary as soon as possible. I’d advise anyone who’s interested to get involved and help out where they can, either with Route’s work in London or with schemes in their own regions and cities, mainly because the alternative feels too horrendous to contemplate. We either get behind schemes that can make sure music has a place for everyone, or we allow music in the UK to slowly morph into a parade of Mumford & Sons and Coldplay. It really is that simple.

Photography by Elianna “Kiki” Monye, Simon Tyrie and Andreia Lemos