Graham Chesters: Cry freedom from heart of Wilberforce’s city

I’LL begin with a confession: I’ve never been a festival person. The nearest I’d got had been depositing and picking up offspring in improbable places at improbable hours of the night. But, over the last years, that has changed.

In 2010, I led Larkin25’s six-month long celebrations of the poet and I’m now the proud chairman of the the company that oversees Hull’s extraordinary Freedom Festival.

Funded by Hull City Council, the Arts Council and invaluable local sponsorship, the three-day event is a street festival anchored in the old Fruit Market area alongside the two rivers and the marina. An amazing setting. This year’s event starts on Friday.

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The company is new, set up with the specific purpose of developing the annual event which originated in 2007 as part of the William Wilberforce bi-centenary commemorations.

One of the first actions was to re-assert the importance of these origins. The key principle driving everything will be that the festival should celebrate, through artistic and cultural expression, Hull’s independent spirit and historic contribution to the cause of freedom.

To establish the festival’s unique identity, we believe that “freedom” must be more than just its name. The concept of ‘freedom’ should be consistently articulated throughout the festival content and supporting activities. In a world full of festivals, this is some ambition. But then Hull is a place of cultural ambition and this year’s festival comes just weeks before the city submits its final bid to become UK’s City of Culture in 2017.

It will be a key showcase to demonstrate to the world what Hull can uniquely offer in terms of culture. So, if you ask me whether I can sense the pressure of expectation, the answer is a definite yes – but what a privilege to be involved in something so massive for Hull!

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Hull, as Larkin noted, has a “different resonance”. It is one of Yorkshire’s great cities but, being a port and lodging in a special triangle between the Humber and the North Sea, it is unlike elsewhere – quirky, not afraid to say no to a king or to fight against the odds for the abolition of slavery. So the city embraces the distinctiveness of attaching the huge universal value of freedom to its premier cultural event. But how can this blend of street theatre, music, dance, comedy and performance capture the seriousness of the theme?

I believe that culture can and should be meaningful and powerful as well as entertaining. It is a vehicle for provoking thought, reflection and action. The opening event of this year’s festival begins with a torchlight procession with 600 volunteer torchbearers from the community, representing Hull’s increasing diversity.

It starts at the Wilberforce Monument, moves through the Old Town, past Wilberforce’s birthplace and the Mandela Gardens, arriving spectacularly at Pier Head in the shadow of The Deep. There, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a momentous event in the American Civil Rights movement, Lemn Sissay – London 2012’s official poet – will read Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to a hushed, expectant audience. It promises to be an unforgettable experience, solemn, moving and inspiring.

My belief is that this powerful assertion of what freedom means and how peoples have sacrificed so much to secure it will set the tone for the whole three days: be inspired, seize the chance to enjoy the creative spirit of the festival, savour the freedom that you have but keep in mind the fact that there are freedoms to be won around the world still – and indeed in the UK itself. Legislation is about to be brought forward by the Home Secretary to combat human trafficking and its consequences.

Freedom is always topical, always vital and always at risk.

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So, over the years ahead, I want the Freedom Festival to explore modern-day slavery, as well as other freedom issues. Our advisory partners include the Hull Amnesty Group, the campaigning Hull University Union, the Black History Partnership and the University’s Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation. Like us, they want the torch of freedom to continue to blaze. Our plans also include an across-the-year programme designed to keep that torch burning. All this is work in progress but we too have a dream.

Since 2007, over 600,000 people have come to the Freedom Festival. I’d love to add another 100,000 to that figure this year. For the people of Hull, it is their festival. For visitors to our quirky and wonderful city, it is their chance to enjoy the very special atmosphere of Freedom, bottle some of it, take it away and tell others – and come back next year with a friend or two!

But also never forget Martin Luther King’s repeated plea: “Let freedom ring!”

• Professor Graham Chesters is chairman of Hull’s Freedom Festival, which takes place from september 6-8.