Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (acronyms: EDI or DEI) has become quite the buzz-phrase nowadays. ‘Equity’ stands for treating everyone fairly. ‘Diversity’ refers to…well, diversity (age, race, gender etc). And ‘Inclusion’ refers to how welcome everyone feels (slightly different to diversity, which focuses more on numbers). Taken together, these represent ‘values’ that organisations try to work towards.

Despite having its roots in the 1960, the EDI movement seems to have gained a lot of attention in recent years—much of it criticism—as compulsory EDI training courses have come under attack for stifling freedom of speech or for achieving little in practice (arguments I won’t comment on here). In the USA, 40 bills have been introduced in 22 states to reduce EDI initiatives in public colleges (including complete bans in Texas and Florida). In the UK, the ‘Home Secretary’ has called them a waste of public money.

Although I don’t want The Busking Project or our work to be viewed through the lens of the culture wars, I think it’s safe to say that the values of EDI are uncontroversial, even if attempts to implement them have come under fire, and that EDI is one of the key strengths of street performance. So, I made a whole video about it, which you can watch above (or see it on YouTube here).



Around the year 1900, African Americans in the southern states started playing a new style of music: the blues. They were mainly farm labourers, toiling from sun up to sun down in the fields, paid nothing or next to nothing, living in some of the most impoverished regions in America.

Some say the blues was a product of this adversity. Others that it was born out of field hollers, work songs, church music and other popular genres of the day. But no music historian seems to have mentioned that the blues was almost exclusively the product of street performers. In fact, nineteen of the first twenty people inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame were buskers (the twentieth being a pianist).

Most of them used busking as a way to leave farm life behind and pursue a career in music. They’d busk on street corners, at markets and outside stores, supplementing their income with paid gigs.

During the 1930s and 1940s, many musicians followed the ‘Great Migration’ of African Americans out of rural southern towns and into the industrialised North. A lot of them soon found themselves in Chicago, where the blues scene revolved around the Maxwell Street Market. Record labels sent talent scouts to hunt for the hottest new performers in town at that market. Also, it was so busy that those buskers started plugging their guitars into amplifiers to be heard over the background noise. And that’s how the blues became the electric blues, the sound that would later morph into rock and roll. In other words we have street performers to thank for rock music.

But more than that, it was those street performers, all the way back in the 1900s, playing slide guitar and bending notes, who were the first Westerners to experiment outside of the 12-note scale, a scale that we’d rigidly adhered to since Pythagoras invented it in 500 BC. You can hear the influence of those blues musicians creep into jazz, into country music, in the guitar solos of Queen, Korn and Coldplay, and in the voices on all of today’s televised talent shows.

It doesn’t stop there. America’s poor black communities created a third revolution in the 1980s, when the four pillars of Hip Hop (graffiti, breakdancing, rapping and deejaying) were invented on the streets and in the parks of Harlem and the Bronx.

The point is that street performance has always been the venue in which the arts are developed and transformed, and it continues to be the backbone of our cultural industries.

The impact of busking is clear. A minimum of thirty inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and twenty one Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners began their careers busking. I say ‘minimum’, because the busking part of a celebrity’s history is often ignored or hidden from view. The cultural establishment is somehow embarrassed that it’s built on busking, viewing street performance as something done at worst by beggars with a gimmick, and at best as artists in the middle of failing to achieve.

Imagine being embarrassed by busking. Throughout human history it has always been true that the vast majority of the world’s live performances have been in the street.

This is common sense. No city has the capacity to stage all of its artists in all of its genres—magic, mime, music and the multitude of other performance types included.

Also, no city has shed the structural classism and racism that benefits performers from certain backgrounds over others. But far more important is that no resource on the planet is more freely available to the entire cross section of a population than street performance. Even clean air and clean water are associated with a postcode lottery. Street performance, on the other hand, does not discriminate.

Go to any street show and you’ll see the entire cross section of the population there. Street performances are normally the first contact children have with live music, and the only place where you’ll see migrants, people in wheelchairs, the elderly, tourists, the affluent and everyone else, side by side. On three separate occasions I’ve personally seen beggars take money out of their cups and put it in a street performer’s hat. I’ve seen kids with severe developmental issues that would be considered disruptive indoors, in a state of bliss, watching or interacting with a street show.

Perhaps if the importance of busking wasn’t so hidden, people wouldn’t ask full-time street performers whether they’d ever considered following a more ‘traditional’ career in music. Busking is the tradition. The recording industry is the modern aberration. And the algorithmically-controlled digital dystopia musicians are faced with today is even worse.

There isn’t an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion-focused arts consultant in the world that wouldn’t dream of having a busker’s audience. It’s time to recognise that.


The above is part of a trio of videos I’ve made on the importance of street performance and why we work within this field. See the other videos here:


Video 1: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in busking

Video 2: The benefits that busking provides

Video 3: Why busking is at risk