Which song holds special meaning to you or your community? This is the question I found myself asking Tower Hamlets residents in the run-up to Eurovision last year, as part of our work with Spirit of 2012 exploring how songs bring people together. It’s a seemingly simple question, but a deceptively hard one. I’ll admit, I didn’t have a ready answer myself.

Moments To Connect

So why were we asking? In 2023, The Young Foundation was lucky enough to collaborate with the Spirit of 2012’s Moments to Connect fund, which explored how major national events – such as the UK hosting Eurovision – can increase social cohesion by connecting people and building common ground across social divides.

Working in our East London locality, we sought to explore how Eurovision might bring diverse communities together through local events. We held ‘open houses’ for people to connect and explore the songs that mattered to them. We wanted to understand if song and music-making could be mechanisms to bring communities together; if Eurovision could be used as a reason to host community events; and whether we could achieve this in a way that was community-led and replicable.

What we learnt

Our intention was to support local people to shape a final event on the eve of Eurovision – but most were surprised to be asked to take that role, many assumed that they might need musical skills to contribute, and some had a ‘marmite’ response (as many loved it as hated it!).

As a result, we shifted focus, instead talking about a celebration of local community and song. We found that resulted in greater engagement: simply creating spaces where people could share their experiences of songs lowered barriers to engagement. People we then inspired to tell us about music that meant a great deal to them because of memories shared with friends and family. We started to experiment with different ways of being community-led, testing small ways of co-designing with the community – such as providing ‘open mic’ opportunities, and inviting contributions to a ‘community playlist’.

As is so often the case with community engagement, we had to work at the ‘speed of trust’, respecting how quickly people were able to collaborate with us and had capacity to engage. We ended up having a group of interested and engaged contributors only at the point of delivering our final event, adapting our approach to asking about songs that mattered.

We often found songs that came to mind and resonated with people were based not on distinct community identities, but rather songs attached to memories of and experiences with loved ones. Many people shared songs connected to childhood memories, and some parents shared songs they sang with their children. Once this connection was made, residents would open up about what music mattered to them, talking to others and sharing further memories. We had an example of two school friends who hadn’t seen each other for years bumping into each other at our stall and reminiscing.

Many more people had something to say or feel about song than they first imagined. Based on this we adapted: giving people a chance to warm up to the question, offering to play their song for others to hear, introducing the concept of a ‘song swap’ (giving a song and story that another resident would receive and getting the chance to take one away themselves to promote this exchange of experience). We also invited artist Francesca Tiley to create an interactive illustration inspired by songs and lyrics suggested by people at our final event.

Overall, we saw that memories connected to songs are powerful and important to people’s identities, and that people enjoy sharing these stories and reflecting. We learnt a lot about the pace, scale and types of activities needed to do this work. It does take time, the right relationships in place, and a ‘container’ for co-design (with clear expectations of what’s possible).

‘You must be somewhere in London, loving your life in the rain…’

So, what song did I finally submit? The National’s ‘High Violet’ is one of those rare albums that I can listen to back-to-back, not skipping a single track. But one song stands out: England. Moving back home to London the year it came out, its lyrics and energy spoke a promise to me: ‘You must be somewhere in London, loving your life in the rain.’

I’ve listened to it countless times and been lucky enough to hear it live more than once. It now connects me back to many moments and – just like the residents we spoke to – the people I was with and that were on mind in those moments. From attempting to dance to it (and settling for committed arm waving) with friends and family, to putting it on the stereo on long drives knowing it’ll make others in the car smile. I’ve listened to it outside hospital wards, before job interviews, and around difficult conversations. It’s a song I don’t always play on a whim but seek out at times of change and reflection, when I need to summon a commitment to make the most of life.

We played it at our final outdoor event as part of our Community Playlist. And, in a moment of great irony, it rained.

If you’d like to listen to our Community Playlist, we’ve shared it along with other outputs from the project here.

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