From Busk till Dawn

Leeds’ struggling musicians: Meet the faces behind the pandemic

Vibrancy and joy has hit the city centre since the release of lockdown, bringing Yorkshire back to life.

Specialised cameras on Briggate counted a footfall of more than 34,000 shoppers on April 12 – the day in which lockdown restrictions were eased, and retail shops could reopen.

According to Leeds City Council, these stats are equivalent to some days in the run-up to Christmas, with retailers having reported strong sales.

Professional dancehall and reggae musicians Sinini and Tanga who usually busk in Sheffield, have been performing on the streets of Leeds since August last year after struggling financially.

Sinini is seen on the left and Tanga is on the right

“We had no choice but to busk as all our shows were cancelled. We were toiling to make ends meet due to the restrictions, it has been really hard for musicians in particular” recalls Sinini.

Tanga is happy to be earning a living again and expresses what especially makes Leeds a special place for him to perform

“People are appreciative of the music we play in Leeds, there’s a small loving community”

Tanga has been performing for 10 years

“I stay true to the music, do my very best and I treat every chance as my last performance on earth, I will never take these moments for granted again” he smiles.

Street performing encouraged Sinini to take his musical talent to the next level and gave him the confidence he was looking for.

“Busking has unlocked something I have always known I can do but was never sure, I moved out from my comfort zone and started playing to strangers for hours, and it turns out it’s the best thing I could do.”

The people tell me I made their day all the time and that makes me feel good, so it is a win-win situation” he says.

Sinini and Tanga filled the square with vibrations of reggae music on Saturday morning

Despite the pandemic affecting Sinini and Tanga, they both believe they can carry on even better.

“It is a shame we did stop with our lives as we knew it, but a lot of us came out stronger” Sinini expressed.

LeedsBID Chief Executive Andrew Cooper said: “busking plays an important part of the city’s cultural identity.

“Post lockdown, the key will be to work collaboratively in this recovery period,” he says.

While buskers have been off the streets during lockdown, their music has not ceased

Councillor Mary Harland, Leeds City Council’s executive member for economy and culture, said: “A tremendous amount of dedication and partnership work has gone into ensuring the city centre is as safe and welcoming as possible for everyone returning to shops, bars and cafés this week.

“It’s been genuinely uplifting to see people back enjoying the city centre too and it’s given everyone a real sense that together, we’re moving in the right direction and getting life in Leeds back to where it should be.

“It’s still vitally important that as restrictions ease, we continue to follow the latest guidance around social distancing, face coverings and handwashing and all look out for ourselves and each other so that we can keep the city safe.”

Professional saxophonist and music teacher Gavin Randle has been performing on the street since he was 17 years old.

Gavin applied for furlough as soon as lockdown hit Leeds

Randle lived in a cottage in Cornwall before the pandemic, which he had to give up after the restrictions left him without an income.

“I got 80% of my wage, but this meant I had to move into in a converted camper van as I could not afford my rent to my cottage in Cornwall,” he expresses.

Lockdown has meant Gavin has not earned any money in over a year. About 70% of Gavin’s earnings come from street performing. Because busking full-time has been his main source of income for his whole music career, he was able to apply for government support.

 Keep Streets Live have suggested that buskers apply for the financial hardship fund offered by Help Musicians UK, which estimated that 25% of musicians believed they would be ineligible for the self-employment income support scheme.

Gavin is now relieved he is back on the street performing to the people of Leeds as it gives him the bit of reality he said he needed.

“What could be better than to make folk smile or think about special times in their lives?”

Gavin can normally be found outside Briggate

“The reaction I get from people when they hear a tune they know and enjoy is a thrill every time I play.

“I always look forward to playing, I find the people of Leeds very generous, positive and receptive” he cheered.”

Gavin plans to do more busking on the streets of Leeds

“It is different now, people are more appreciative of live entertainment, they are enjoying being out and about and feeling inspired by the music” he says.

Guitarist and vocalist Beth Mia who has been busking for four years explains performing on the street unravelled her hidden talent.

Beth-Mia started performing when she was just nine years old

 “I first got into performing when I was about 9 at a family friend’s wedding, it wasn’t planned or anything, but I loved it and from then I knew I wanted to carry on singing to people” she explains.

Given the increasing risk of the coronavirus pandemic, Mia gave up busking.

“The pandemic has impacted the amount of people out in public which has significantly changed the way I performed, I started doing live streams and featuring on virtual open mics more instead of live music which, as good as it is, is not the same feeling as performing live to people!” she expressed.

While buskers have been off the streets during lockdown, their music has not ceased. The organisation Keep Streets Live, which seeks to protect public spaces for “informal offerings of music and the arts”, invited buskers to live-stream performances on their Facebook page, where appreciative listeners could tip via PayPal, Beth is one of those people.

“My experience of busking in Leeds since lockdown ended has been so good, everyone has been friendly and very generous which is so lovely to see after COVID-19 has affected a lot of musician’s incomes.

“I feel so much more confident and try to test out new material when busking for more professional gigs,” the musician added.

Beth was inspired to busk in Leeds as she heard good things about the city from her friends who perform also.

“As far as I’m aware in Leeds and the city where I’m from near London there are no restrictions, but some places in central London you have to get a busking licence” she says.

Leeds city council operate on a voluntary ‘Code of Conduct system’ that regulates the level of amplification, where buskers perform and how they approach people

Mark Durham, a project Co-Ordinator for the City centre management team, explained that busking is something that the council actively encourages. Whereas other cities have a system where people who want to busk have to apply for a licence, Leeds City council simply has a code of conduct.

Marcus Shellington, who goes under the rapper name Dialect was encouraged into busking from his father who is also a musician.

The moment Marcus busked, he got good reception straight away

“I was not sure at first and did not have much confidence, especially because I did not know what people would think of rap and grime but also the stigma which comes along with it.

“There’s a huge busking community in Leeds, there’s such a big music scene here, we all know each other, and it just adds to the experience”

Most people show me love, but the odd few sometimes cause a bit of trouble or shout things at me, but I always try to deal with it professionally,” the grime rapper explains.

Marcus who has been welcomed as one of Leeds’ own buskers

It’s comes as part of the territory. If you put yourself out there you have to be prepared to deal with the good and the bad. 

“It’s a big city but still small enough to stand out in it,” he says.

Busking has brought Marcus many opportunities, from performances to helping increase his social media fanbase.

“It’s brought me work and helped with my exposure, so I always use it as a way to seize opportunities.

“The latest thing busking did for me was, I was performing a new single of mine in town and a woman in her 90s started dancing to it, and it ended up going viral on social media. That has done wonders for my new release and fanbase,” he added.

After lockdown affecting the rapper’s career, he is now using busking in the current time as a release.

“Lockdown affected it quite badly. I’d also lost my job through lockdown and not been able to busk really impacted me financially and as an artist. I use busking as a release and practice, so without it is very hard to get the most out of it,”

“I want to generate good vibes from all different walks of life and the street is the best place I can do that,” the Leeds busker explains.

Pedraum once waited 3 hours to find a spot to busk

Jazz guitarist Pedraum Agahi, who travels from Nottingham to busk in Leeds said “I like busking in Leeds, it’s a respectful experience, in nemesis like Nottingham, there’s not a lot of spots, there is so many here

“Jazz is very popular in Leeds, Leeds like Jazz a lot, in other cities it is not as much.”

He explains: “Leeds city council has a policy of welcoming buskers. In some cities potential buskers have to register, instead in Leeds there is a code of conduct they have to keep to. This includes not blocking doorways, not play the same tune again and again.”

Pedraum explains the competition in Leeds to busk is very busy, especially since lockdown released.

“On Briggate it is very competitive but when you get the spot, you are allowed to have it put back at home” he added

“We get up at 6 am to get a good space to compete with competition, you have to think strategically the direction people are walking in and side of the street you are on  where you will most likely get noticed.”

“It does not matter how good you are, first person they see, they give money even if you are a top musician” he expresses.

The jazz guitarist has had to change the way in which he works since the pandemic, from taking different payments to interacting less with crowds.

“The pandemic has affected the way we work, we try to remain contactless but to engage with the music, people like to get up and dance, and it encourages a crowd and that is just how music is, but that has been taken away from us

“Social distancing has really taken the experience away as people cannot fully enjoy the music,” he shrugs.

Keyboardist Maxwell Smiley came to the streets of Leeds after a last resort to help provide for his family while trying to survive the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

His work produces cinematic soundscapes and mind freeing drifts through warm layered textural tracks

Maxwell has been playing keyboard since he was 12 years old

His alien mask as displayed came out of “necessity” to remind the public you can still be incredibly talented regardless of appearance.

“I wanted people to focus on how my music sounds rather than how I look, I associate aliens with the type of avant-garde which is the genre I predominantly play.”

“One time I was waiting three hours for a space to be available, so it is just luck

“It was nice to have a break away from the kids and finally gain back my creativity after lockdown took that away from me for a while” he smiled.

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