Somerville-based HONK! Festival invited international partners for virtual blowout

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Media: Jesse Edsel-Vetter (courtesy)

Performers at the annual Honk! Festival raise their hands together in celebration.

By Joshua Sokol

The Somerville-based HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands looked quite unusual this year due to the impact of COVID-19. But the 2020 fest at the intersection of social activism and thrilling performance made its mark as the largest HONK! lineup yet.

From Oct. 5 to Oct. 11, 76 street bands took to the virtual space to invigorate audiences with free, live music with a mission of inspiring community engagement and maintaining accessibility to festival-goers. 

Since its local inception in 2006, the HONK! Festival has grown international roots with artists all over the world, including Antarctica. Cecily Miller, a member of the Somerville HONK! Festival committee said that they invited the 22 other HONK! Festivals all over the world in order to make this year’s event unique, and to focus on what they could gain as opposed to what they have lost.

The wave of submissions shocked the organizers, Ken Field, a member of the Somerville-based HONK! Committee, said. 

“Originally we thought we’d get about 12 hours of material,” he said. “But we’ve ended up with something like 70 hours.”

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Hosted on HONK!’s YouTube channel, the seven-day festival kicked off on Oct. 5 with a live stream event consisting of panels, animations, and an archived recording of last year’s HONK! Festival in São Paulo.

Even though we can’t all gather in one place this year, we can make a statement at the same time,” reads the HONK!United website.

An attendee, adorned in a colorful tophat, spoke to a crowd on-camera in Portuguese, transcribed into English subtitles. “We have come a long way, with an open soul and a singing heart,” they said while an ensemble of brass musicians played behind them.

People on the streets of the Brazilian city all came to a common consensus behind the meaning of HONK!: a power to democratize music and utilize the importance of public space.

After the cancellations of most in-person festivals, the Somerville HONK! Festival committee had to come together to start considering options that accommodated COVID-19 safety restrictions on large, outdoor gatherings.

“I was invited to the very first HONK! Festival back in 2006,” Field said. “Come February or March [2020], we were still thinking that we could have a festival this year, maybe it could be small and distributed.”

Cecily Miller put out the idea of a digital festival when the certainty of live options were still up in the air, said Field. The methodology behind the concept was a way to ensure that the festival could happen no matter what. 

When confronted with the reality of not being able to have an in-person festival, the HONK! Committee initially felt the desire to resist that possibility. But after attending a virtual conference herself, Miller began to embrace the idea of a digital reimagination. 

“I learned so much, and I never would have gone if it hadn’t been online,” Miller said. “Many people commented on the fact that the attendance was double or triple what it had been the previous year. It became much more accessible and much more interesting.”

While the effort was not without its challenges, Field said that the opportunity for international bands to work digitally was actually a benefit—and the bands did not have to tussle with the added expense of travel and accommodation. 

One of these issues, Miller said, was the ability to have full participation from the other U.S.-based HONK! Festivals. “There are parts of our country that are under a lot more economic and health-related stress. It’s a difficult time in terms of people’s morale and productivity.” She said.

The virtual platform offered an opportunity to inform the audience about the activism that goes on behind the scenes of HONK!. 

This activism includes, but is not limited to, demonstrations by the HONK! community at ICE detention centers, protests to raise the minimum wage in Boston, and strengthening relationships with local unions.

Miller said she believes this type of engaged activism is necessary, but also should be seen as a privilege worth fighting for. 

“I think [periods of sustained activism] is something that comes and goes, like a pendulum,” she said. “There are times that are more complacent, and there are times that are filled with more protest and contention.”

HONK! is utilized as a platform to challenge the efforts of private corporations and authoritarian governments to gatekeep and privatize public space, Miller said. She continued, saying that this leads into a greater conversation about limitation of access to free expression as well as gentrification. 

The force of the music, combined with the spirit of activism, emphasizes the people’s desire to gather and celebrate life, as well as create a larger voice against systemic injustice.

“There’s been a very healthy and reinvigorated movement to animate public spaces.” Miller said. “But we need to be very aware that it’s a privilege, and it’s a privilege that we need to keep fighting for.”