Pass The Mic: The Subways' Billy Lunn On The Fight For Allyship

Pass The Mic: The Subways' Billy Lunn On The Fight For Allyship

"Our privilege affords us this chance at humility, so we should use it..."

The Subways aren't immune to the context they work in.

The long-standing indie duo draw energy from their surroundings, and then times take a turn for the worse, well, their songwriting is going to have to reflect that.

Signing to Alcopop! Records, the group have started teasing their fifth album, with new single 'Fight' out now.

The physical seven inch is out on April 30th, coupled with a Nova Twins interview on the B-side, and a zine documenting modern political activism here in the UK (order it HERE).

It's a bold return, something The Subways bill "a letter in two parts". New single 'Fight' they say, is "a gesture of solidarity with the Black community and communities of colour, as they face their daily oppression at the hands of systemic racism; and it’s a wake-up-call to the white community that such oppressions do in fact exist, and that we must acknowledge these oppressions and fight alongside marginalised communities as allies..."

Clash invited The Subways' Billy Lunn to explore ally-ship, and what it means to him, in-depth...

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Allyship, at the very least, demands humility. As a white cis-male who sits at almost the highest point in the nexus of intersectional hierarchies, I want to be an ally to the less-privileged and more-marginalised, particularly those who don’t conform to the current conception of social norms. The truth is, though, that I struggle on a daily basis to possess the humility required to do this. But that’s okay! This stuff isn’t easy.

I’ve been guilty of both chastising those who can’t in the moment reflect on their privilege, whilst in the next breath refusing to reflect on my own. My initial impediment to self-reflection was my own ideas about myself: I grew up council-housed, as part of a family that was on benefits, state-schooled (and a recipient of free school meals), and later came out as bisexual. However, rather than establishing this as the finite scope of my compassion, I decided to work through incremental steps of self-interrogation, and realised that even I, as someone of a lower socioeconomic status than my peers, was the beneficiary of privileges.

For instance, as a young man, I could walk down the street, and, because of the colour of my skin, I could avoid being suspected by those around me as a threat: a perception of ‘threat’, that is, which only exists because society, over the course of centuries, has told us that we should fear people of different colours of skin from our own. Such fears have been – and continue to be – fuelled and perpetuated by a system driven towards division (because it sells newspapers and wins elections).

For a wide variety of systemic reasons, Black communities and communities of colour disproportionately grow up in and cannot move on from economically deprived areas, or even see these areas improve over time. Schools, GP surgeries, youth centres, social programmes, and policing aren’t as well-funded or protected as the more affluent, white-populated areas. As a result, the dreams of members of these deprived communities (let alone their means to the pursuit of a good life) are made infinitely more difficult.

Whilst facing such difficulties, society leaves them behind as it also castigates them for being left behind, and thus a vicious circle is formed. Additionally, as they live out this vicious cycle, from which there appears no escape (but for a lucky few), members of the Black community and communities of colour are then told that such systemic impediments do not even exist. The system that oppresses them thereby gaslights them, and the struggle is compounded by its denial.

Such a conception of another’s experience takes time and effort to apprehend – but it also requires humility: the humility to accept that another’s existence on this earth has been made more difficult than our own, though we ourselves have struggled.

This doesn’t diminish our own respective struggles by any means. Nor does it implicate us directly as oppressors, which at first seems to be the corollary: I am white, so doesn’t that mean I’m part of a system that oppresses other more marginalised communities, such as the Black community? This can be true without our necessarily intending it. Though we may not have consciously contributed to the oppression of another, it is entirely possible that we have participated in the perpetuation of a structure that has oppressed others.

And it’s easy to be on the defensive to such a suggestion. Because, on the surface, you could ask yourself ‘what have I personally done wrong, exactly?’ Defence is an inherent and important quality to have as a human being. Without it, how would we be able to keep ourselves from various forms of harm. But it’s also something that, in certain situations, we must outgrow. We must shake off the easy impulse towards defensiveness. As with all other human impulses, we’re more than capable of leaving it behind so as to operate in and as part of civilised society. So each of us therefore needs to ask of ourselves, ‘how have I participated, knowingly or unknowingly, in the systemic oppression of others?’ To be able to ask this of oneself requires humility.

I asked myself this very question as a friend and I situated ourselves near Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square during one of the several Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Only a few days before, she’d tentatively sent me a Facebook message asking if I planned on marching. Yes, I did. She’d seen the pictures I’d uploaded whilst I was at uni (during the band’s 2016-19 hiatus), protesting and marching for college divestment from the fossil-fuel industry, and later for decolonising the curriculum.

She’d never attended a march before, and knew of nobody else in our circle who planned on going. As we stood there in Parliament Square, singing the songs brought to life from the slogans of others’ placards, she revealed her own placard (which she’d constructed in secret) and began singing the slogan she’d written upon it. Everyone around us began singing along too: with anger, frustration, righteousness, and a too-long-deferred sense of power. 

Later on, as we marched towards the US embassy, she said, as if in passing, that for the first time in her life she possessed and could express the language to articulate her experience as a mixed-race woman. I instantly knew that the first song for the band’s new album had to be about something outside of our own privileged narrative. It occurred to me that our songs didn’t need to be all about me (shock horror). This was a personal revelation that highlighted to me my own limitations, given my platform, and I felt an overwhelming elation at being so liberated from my self-centredness.

Given the weight of the moment and the movement, and the immediate need for justice and equality, no other expression than a declaration of allyship and solidarity with the Black community would do. Consequently, ‘Fight’ is a reflection on only a few of the unquestioned givens of white privilege: at whose expense have we been able to enrich our nations? And at what cost can we continue fooling ourselves that the oppression others face has nothing to do with our participation, direct or indirect?

Seeing my beloved friend finally finding the language to speak her experience also taught me that there are times at which we must hand over the microphone, step aside, and listen. And that’s why we dedicated the B-side of ‘Fight’ to a discussion with one of our favourite bands, Nova Twins, so they can use our privileged platform to speak their truth of being Black women in the music industry. We have so much to learn, and every moment is an opportunity to reflect and change. 

More than anything, we privileged people should acknowledge the opportunity for self-reflection and change for what it actually, practically, truly is: a liberation. In a world where we are demanded to define and determine our identities and our paths through life at such ridiculously young ages, allowing ourselves the space and time to realise we might be wrong, or that our thinking has been up-to-this point limited or constrained, should rather be relished.

Furthermore, it’s liberating to know that none of us – not a one – has started at Peak Wokeness. We’ve all made mistakes, and thus we’ve all been given the choice to either double-down in the belief that we’re right, or instead apologise and learn from it. All I’m proposing is that we do our utmost to put our pride aside, take a moment to think, and to choose the latter. Our privilege affords us this chance at humility, so we should use it.

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Catch The Subways on tour alongside Art Brut at the following shows:

23 Norwich The Waterfront
24 Birmingham O2 Institute
25 London O2 Forum Kentish
30 Nottingham Rock City

1 Bristol O2 Academy
2 Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms *
3 Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms *

* The Subways only

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