On a wet October evening, people are milling around the Birmingham Institute ahead of the Anti-Flag gig, buying drinks, browsing the merch stand, nodding along to The Clash playing over the loudspeaker. A man with a guitar walks onstage with so little ceremony that many don’t even notice. He plugs in his guitar, says “This is a protest song” and begins to sing.
Twenty minutes later, he has abandoned the stage and is playing acoustically on the main floor, the audience circled around him. Those in the know are singing along, and the unconverted are soon won over by his wit and the intimacy of the performance. No doubt about it, Derek Zanetti, aka The Homeless Gospel Choir, has made some new fans tonight.
His story is quite something: born into a right-wing evangelical family in Philadelphia where the fear of Hell was used to force respect and conformity, Zanetti found his escape in punk rock, and now travels the world with his guitar as The Homeless Gospel Choir, spreading a message of resistance, equality and the power of kindness. And he does it all with a wit and charm that is utterly beguiling.
In person, Zanetti is friendly and engaging, chatting equally happily about gentrification, the importance of libraries, and umbrellas. His demeanour changes depending on the topic. He can be very childlike, all cheeky smiles and twinkling eyes, then become serious as he talks about his social concerns and politics. Everything he says is considered. If he loses the thread of his argument, he looks off to one side and pauses for a while, regathering his thoughts before continuing. Once he has found his groove, he talks at length and with passion.
It’s on the subject of politics that he gets the most intense. His concerns will be familiar to most left-wing thinkers, ranging from the inequalities inherent within capitalism to the pressure to conform socially. He does get angry, whether it’s talking about the Bush administrations (“murdering opportunists”), Tony Blair (“giant sack of shit”) or the hypocrisy of Donald Trump, but the discussion is always rational and thoughtful. These are not beliefs he has inherited idly but are the result of a deliberate move away from his ultra-conservative upbringing, yet these childhood experiences still seem to haunt his thinking:
“It’s hard to be an adult now for me. Like, a lot of my ideas are still very, very childish because I’m still developing and because I lived in such an arena of fear for much of my life.”
Also a published author, Zanetti wants his music and writing to create “a culture of inclusion”, helping others recognise that there is a life outside of the mainstream and conventional if they want it, that we can all challenge inequality and unfairness in the world. He talks passionately about wanting people to understand that
“we can create our own world, that we can create our own system of beliefs, that we can go ahead and create our own ethic and be kind to one another, be generous to one another and stand against, in a powerful way, the systems that have been set in place to oppress people. And that’s what I want to be known for and that’s what I want to do.”
It’s a lesson he does not always get right:
“I’m a fucking hypocrite and I fuck up all the time but I’m trying, I’m trying my best.”
Zanetti certainly does try, publicly practising what he preaches. While in Nottingham, he took part in a rally against the anti-immigration marchers in the town, saying that it brought him to tears to see such a rainbow of faces standing up against hatred. He gets frustrated at how unwilling the wealthy can be to help the poor, but it is not the gimmicky stance of an artist struggling for authenticity. His politics are far more nuanced than that, idealistic but run through with a vein of pragmatism. For instance, on the thorny issue of money, he states that earning wealth is not an issue in itself, but if
“you want to stack the deck so that it’s so far stacked in your favour that no one else can ever get a bite to eat, no one else can ever get a piece of the pie and no one else can ever have a place to live or a place to stay, and the only people who are supposed to be getting anything are you and people who look like you, that’s where I have a big problem.”
Early on in the conversation, Zanetti acknowledges that the politics are more important than the music:
“I never had any aspirations to become a musician ever… As far as, like, musical talent goes, I slam on an acoustic guitar and I yell about the government!”
This belies his obvious ability. Zanetti has a strong voice and an ear for a good tune, even if it’s not what he considers most important. He talks warmly about Billy Bragg, sharing his one-man-with-guitar styling and learning from him that music can be a way to get people to listen:
“I’ve always wanted to care for an aesthetic that was consciously aware of the world around us…, able to address social issues and social justice issues and human rights issues, and I find that the best way for me to draw a crowd of people around me is to have a guitar and to make a noise doing it.”
When asked if he would still play music if he could draw the same crowd for his message without it, he admits that he wouldn’t regret hanging up his guitar:
“The music is just a vessel that I use to talk about the politics… It’s more than just a punk rock show for me, it’s more than just me on my guitar yelling at conservatives. I want to be someone who’s known to help and stand up for those who are being oppressed and marginalised and neglected by society, and [for] standing up against the oppressors… I want to resist mainstream culture, I want to resist it as much as I can because I don’t necessarily believe I have to participate in it. And I want to set an ethic, and I want to set an example to other people who think like me and feel like me, who might feel displaced by mainstream culture and mainstream society, to know that you also can resist.”
After the show, Zanetti’s community spirit shines through. Hearing that some fans had missed the set after driving for five hours, he decides to play a few songs by the tour bus so that they don’t miss out. This additional performance is to become a feature throughout the tour. As with the occasional shows he puts on in people’s houses, Zanetti uses this “non-corporate way” of performing to spread his message and engage personally with people. This time, after a debate with security (“They can’t come in? I guess I’ll go out then!”), he performs to about a dozen fans, showcasing old favourites and some of his new tracks. By the time I left, he was still posing for photos.
With plans for more tours, another book of short stories, and a children’s colouring book about resistance and activism in the pipeline, Zanetti is a busy man. Yet, in all these ventures, the same themes come to the fore, the same philosophy imparted:
“The greatest weapon that we can wield is our mind…Don’t eat whatever they’re serving you, ’cause chances are good it’s bullshit…Think for yourself. Be kind to one another. Life is really really short and I don’t want kindness to turn into a unicorn we never see. I’d like kindness to be kinda like the air we breathe and to be something we get to participate in in our daily life.”
We could do worse than follow Zanetti’s personal example, a man and artist who lives and breathes his philosophy.
Find out more about The Homeless Gospel Choir here:
You can find Derek Zanetti’s books here
Cover photo by Rai Jayne Hearse