Meet the Manchester artists taking on street harassment

Singer-songwriters, Olivia Browse and Jozef Scott have had enough. Harry Browse talks to them about sticking out, cat-calling and clowning around.

Jozef and Olivia, both 20, started writing music when they were teenagers, hungry to escape the small towns where they’re from.

Now in their final year at the British Institute of Modern Music in Manchester, the best friends have grown into their distinct styles; Joe is influenced by the grunge and heavy rock movements of the mid-80’s and Olivia by the moody ballads of artists like Kate Bush and The Smith’s-era Morrissey.

Olivia’s latest release, ‘Halloween,’ draws on their experiences of street harassment.

How did you find the move to Manchester?

Joe: I’m from a tiny village which sits between Blackpool and Preston, called Freckleton, which sounds like something out of a Disney movie. When I first moved to Manchester, I didn’t wear any make up. Living in a city made me feel confident to express myself in a queer way.

Although I feel confident walking around the city dressed like this, I still get people hurling insults and threats. It’s happened quite a few times near where I live in Salford. If I put on lipstick or I go really heavy on the make-up, I get people making sarcastic wolf whistles. Especially groups of men. They’ll egg each other on to see who can make the worst comment.

Olivia: Once, I went into Salford town wearing a big multicoloured jacket and my make up was really colourful because I was going to an open mic night later that evening. I got shouted at and pointed at. If I need to go into town now, I just wear jeans and a top.

Saying that, sometimes I just don’t even care. It depends on where my head is at. I tell myself that I shouldn’t let other people control what I wear. You just have to be wary sometimes because you don’t know who’s about.

Initially, I didn’t get any name calling in Manchester. I’m from a town called Corringham in Essex and there I would get catcalled quite often. Because it is such a small town, when you dress obscure or different, you stick out. I felt more at ease coming to a big city and obviously Manchester has such a large queer scene, so I end up looking quite pedestrian compared to some of the people you see on Canal Street on a Saturday night.

“What’s the point of dressing down because you’re scared of intimidation?”

Joe: I think having safe spaces like that in a city gives people somewhere to experiment without worrying about being harassed, but my attitude is that I would rather walk around the rest of city feeling the same way. What’s the point of dressing down because you’re scared of intimidation?

Is it a case of swapping safe spaces for safer streets in general?

Olivia: You could say that. Even in these so-called safe spaces, you still get people saying things. People will still single you out. I don’t think its anything to do with the environment, but an attitude that people have.

Would you consider it a hate crime?

Joe: Last summer I was followed home by a guy who started shouting homophobic slurs at me. I wouldn’t say those people are uneducated, but ignorant. My way of being exists outside of what they know. I think it also comes from a place of jealousy; that they wouldn’t have the balls to dress like this themselves.

I usually find it really funny. I would rather evoke a really positive or negative reaction than blend into the background. If I move someone emotionally to say something, I’m clearly making an impact. Not that that’s always the intention. I don’t really want people to come up to me in the street and say anything, but as a creative person, it would feel weird for me to wear just a t-shirt and jeans in order to fit in.

I think street harassment should be considered a hate crime because you don’t have to be dressing in an over-the-top way to be on the receiving end of it; for example, women who wear the hijab get Islamophobic abuse thrown at them by people who read the Daily Mail. It can be motivated by different types of bigotry, but it always comes down to a feeling of hate.

“You feel powerless. I think it should be considered a hate crime.”

Olivia: When I had longer hair, I would get catcalls. The harassment would have a sexual undertone. Since I’ve shaved it all off, it’s become something else. I’ve had people say stuff to me with the assumption that I’m a lesbian. In that respect, I feel sorry for those who get it more than I do.

It’s assault. If you’re vulnerable and on your own, they could do anything to you. You feel powerless. I think it should be considered a hate crime.

Do you react or do you ignore it?

Olivia: Depends how threatening they look. Once, a guy stopped at some traffic lights, which were green, to say to myself and my friends, “Are you off to a Halloween party?” To which I replied, “Yeah, I’m dressed as your mum.” There were three other men in the van. It was scary but I thought it’s not like they’re going to get out the car and chase me down the road. If someone says something in the street then I usually ignore them.

Joe: Yeah, it depends whether I’m on my own or if they’re on their own. If what they’ve said is particularly ridiculous, I’ve shouted back and tried to publicly humiliate them by pointing it out to everyone around me.

At the end of the day, you won’t change that person’s opinion by retaliating. It comes down to education. If there was a bigger emphasis on learning to respect people regardless of how they chose to express themselves or their sexual orientation, religion, then things might change.

I think the most important thing is defiance and refusing to apologise or agreeing to dress differently. If, one day, someone does attack me – god forbid – then I’d rather look nice for it and die looking bougie.

Scroll down to find out what’s behind the lyrics of Olivia’s new song, ‘Halloween’, available to listen on Soundcloud.

Hover over the lyrics in bold to read what Olivia had to say about the writing of the song.

‘Halloween’ by Olivia Browse

Won’t you laugh at my expense
So I can lack in confidence
Won’t you laugh in my direction
So I’ll start seeking some attention

‘Cause I needed your approval
When we start looking so unusual
Funniest thing you’ve seen all day
And always got something to say

Local jester, you impress her
Local jester, did you dress her?

Trick or treat
When you’re on Manchester streets
Trick or treat
Where you can get away with it

Won’t you help me decorate
‘Cause I’m looking such a state

Chorus x2

Where you can get away with it
Where I can get away with it
Where we can get away with it

Michelle Obama: Jester, you’ve done it again
Constantly raising the bar for the circus
And doing it foolishly

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