Sam Fender: ‘A lot of people don’t like the idea they might be privileged’
Sam Fender is on a mission. He’s using his platform to speak out against the poverty and social inequality that’s surrounded him his whole life. Because if the government won’t act, then someone has to.
Culture wars, class, white male privilege, working-class anger, party politics. Most pop stars will do just about anything to avoid getting into the weeds with these hot-button topics. But not Sam Fender.
With his latest No 1 album, Seventeen Going Under, Sam Fender has bagged three Brit Award nominations and is perilously close to becoming the voice of his generation. As music becomes ever more socially rarefied, and working-class perspectives ever more sidelined, he resonates with hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who don’t often hear their lives reflected at the top of the charts.
“To be honest, with this record, it wasn’t actually a real aim to tackle social issues,” he says. “It was just I’d done therapy for two years once I started getting famous. That, basically, opened up a whole can of worms with my upbringing.
“I just ended up writing about home a lot more, and writing about my life, and writing about my mother. Them stories just have a social conscience in them, because it’s talking about very, very normal things that happen to very normal people.”
As we talk, we are sitting in the storeroom of a food bank in Newcastle. Hundreds of very normal people need help from this place every week. Here to help out at The Big Issue’s invitation, Fender has just been packing up fresh meals and talking to the volunteers who keep this place running.
We’re not far from where he grew up in North Shields. Not far from where he experienced poverty as a child, when his mum couldn’t work due to fibromyalgia and mental health issues.
“When I was a kid, and me mam fell on hard times, I saw how little help there is when you get to that place. There were times where she was like, literally: it’s the rent or the groceries,” he says. “I seen what that did to my mother’s self-esteem. And her mental health. It was the shame of it. She used to always say, ‘I feel embarrassed’. And so that struggle’s always been close to me.”
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Now that Sam Fender is successful and famous, he’s been asking himself: “Am I doing anything good with my life?” Over the last couple of years, that quest for meaning led him to build an ongoing relationship with The Big Issue. In late 2020, he met Big Issue seller Earl John Charlton and formed a strong bond that continues to this day.
Charlton has experienced homelessness and addiction issues but now has a full-time job and a place of his own. He credits The Big Issue with turning his life around.
He works at North East Homeless, a charity supporting people who are still in the teeth of the issues he faced not so long ago. Coincidentally, they’re based right near Fender’s studio. “I see Earl like nearly every other day when I’m down there. We’ll always sit and have a cup of tea and a chat,” says Fender. “He’s very empathetic when I’m on a bad day.”
Charlton is always a man with a plan, from putting on poetry nights to taking up boxing – all of it in aid of charity.
“He’ll tell us what his latest shenanigans are and what he’s up to,” Fender smiles. “He is just a diamond. He’s a true hero and a man of the people. But still, I was worried about him when he said he was boxing. He says, ‘Are you gonna come to me fight?’ I said, ‘Aye, I’ll come as long as nowt happens to you. And you better win!’”
It was Charlton’s story, and his determination, that encouraged Fender to find a wider purpose, to explore ways he can harness his platform for good.
“I think I need to do some more stuff to do with this [taking action on poverty],” he explains. “Because the Tories aren’t doing it. We’ve got the worst government I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. My dad reckons it’s one of the worst he’s ever seen. And he’s sixty-fucking-six.”
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By the time we’re sitting in the storeroom, Sam Fender has heard lots of stories of families who are living through similar experiences to him and his mum. They’re people on the sharp end of years of government austerity, now further pummelled by the pandemic.
He’s very obviously moved. And he’s trying to pick apart why so many people in the north-east of England – despite living in some of the country’s most deprived areas – turned away from Labour, their traditional party of representation. Why places like Blyth Valley went Tory in 2019 for the first time in the constituency’s history, heralding the fall of Labour’s so-called Red Wall.
“You’ve got to ask yourself why that’s happening,” he says. “And I think it’s because we’ve got a lot of culture wars being fought at the moment, which need to be fought, for things like LGBTQ+ rights, and racism, and gender inequality. It’s about fucking time that we’re having the conversations we’re having.
“But what I think isn’t really spoken about much is class. I don’t think a lot of the left-wing, liberal papers talk about class as much as they probably should. Or they forget that class is threaded through all of these discussions.
“I’ve had arguments with people who’ve told us how privileged I am for being a man,” he continues, by way of example. “And I completely agree that there is such a thing as white male privilege.
“But try and tell a lot of people from Easington [in Durham, notable for being the town with the highest percentage of white residents in England and where most of Billy Elliot was shot] that they’ve got white male privilege, when they’ve grown up in a fucking estate, in poverty. It doesn’t fly with them. They’ll probably feel like they’re being preached to by a bunch of really privileged people.”
Too many of the liberals Sam Fender meets in the arts and media circles don’t really understand where he comes from. “A lot of them don’t like the idea that they might be privileged,” he says, and so they don’t get the very real anger felt in working-class towns.
“I spoke to somebody who went to a really, really expensive private school and had a massive mansion that she grew up in, but she was talking about how much easier it would be for me to get certain jobs. I was like, ‘Well, I didn’t go to uni and that wasn’t like, out of choice. It was because I wasn’t actually good enough.’ If it wasn’t for Owain [Davies, director of OD Management, who discovered Fender], I’d probably still be in Shields not really knowing what to do. And not really having many opportunities. There isn’t many opportunities for young lads.”
At 27, Fender’s life has changed drastically in a few short years. He’s not on benefits any more and he’s the most financially secure he’s ever been in his life. “It’s amazing. I love that. And who wouldn’t?” he says.
But his family is still in North Shields. His friends are still there. And they’re still living with a serious dearth of prospects. “A lot of my best friends are in right dire straits at the moment. And I can’t fix that. Which annoys us. Also it’s like, you have this level of guilt that comes with it, you know?”
Fuck politics, man. Community’s the way forward
As a confirmed left-winger – “a borderline socialist” – Sam Fender finds himself fighting on two fronts. While he’s frustrated by the failure of liberal elites to understand his home town, he also has arguments with people back home who’ve turned their backs on the Labour party. He thinks many of them have been tricked.
“I loved fucking Corbyn, quite frankly,” Fender says. “I mean, he fucked up a lot of things. But I think his heart was in the right place and that’s something that we’ve not seen for a long time.
“I just think he was done a massive disservice by the British press. And I think a lot of people who he would have potentially helped were groomed to hate him. The Tory party knew exactly what they were doing when it comes to turning him into a fucking enemy.”
So how does he think Labour can turn things around? “They need to start having more working-class representation. Like your Dennis Skinners and stuff like that. You need people like that, and young people like that. Who don’t sound like the fucking Guardian when they’re talking to people.”
Crammed in a foodbank storeroom with a passionate, articulate, smart, young left-winger, a man using his lived experience of poverty to fight for his community, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m looking at the solution.
Fender certainly has the ability to lead, the skill of speaking to exactly the constituency that the left needs to reclaim if they want to topple the Tories. Would he ever consider turning in his guitar for a career in politics?
“I couldn’t. They would fucking destroy me,” he sighs. “I’m not clean enough. That’s the issue. All they’d have to do is just catch us one night on a bender, and then that would be me. I’m not a politician. I’m a fucking artist. I couldn’t do it. They’d run rings around us.”
Sam Fender might not feel able to offer political representation, but by telling the stories of his friends and family, he does offer cultural representation. And, even more importantly, hope.
“Music was therapy to me before I did therapy,” he says. “It was the only form of catharsis that I’ve ever had. And if I can provide some level of catharsis for somebody else who’s listening, then that’s what I’ve achieved.”
This year, Fender will play the biggest tour of his career so far, including a headline date to 40,000 people in London’s Finsbury Park. It’s those concerts, seeing the whites of people’s eyes, that makes his job worth doing.
Locating a YouTube clip on his phone, he leans over to show me the end of his recent gig at Alexandra Palace. The music stops, but the crowd keeps chanting back at him. They’re caught up in the collective power that only comes from live music. On the phone screen, and in front of me, Fender grins.
“Some of the kids down the front at London and Newcastle, the words looked like they were theirs more than they were mine,” he says. “There was one guy in particular I saw. He was completely electric. He was singing every single word. That’s why I’m doing this. Him down there. Or the small girl with blue hair who was just bawling her eyes out the whole time down the front, holding on to her phone and her wallet.
“It’s like community,” he continues. “It’s 10,000 people together, united by something that’s positive.”
Whether that community is found in an arena concert or in a foodbank, it’s powerful… and it matters. “Fuck politics, man. Community’s the way forward.”
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.
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