‘What is Freedom?’ Council Leader Mike Ross on the importance of the city’s biggest arts festival

As Freedom Festival 2022 kicks off at Hull New Theatre tonight, Councillor Mike Ross is speaking to guests at the launch about why the event and what it stands for are still so relevant 15 years on. Here is his speech in full…

It is wonderful to be with you all tonight. Freedom is a highlight on the calendar for this city, and rightly so.

It is hard to believe it is now 15 years since the Freedom Festival was established in 2007, with the first event a year later.

Let’s look back on how the festival has evolved over time.

Councillor Mike Ross
Councillor Mike Ross

It started as an event to mark the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s law, the Slave Trade Act 1807, abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. It is now an internationally respected cultural festival.

At first it was a one-day offering, with pop acts being the main feature. It now sees two weeks of quality artistic offerings.

The public of Hull see this as their festival.

It puts Hull on the map.

Personally, I always enjoy when we have friends and family from outside the city visiting here when Freedom is on. An opportunity to showcase the city.

Throughout all this, the festival has never lost the meaning of what it was set up to remember – the importance of freedom.

What is Freedom?

All of us will have different understandings of freedom.

Dictionary definitions say:

  • the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.
  • the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.

I am sure you would have your own way to describe what it means to you.

What is certain is that freedom is a fundamental right and something we should all have. Sadly, not everyone around the world has the same rights and freedom as all of us here in this majestic theatre possess.

Indeed, we should recognise that not everyone in Hull does. While this festival was originally established to commemorate the landmark bill to abolish the slave trade, we also have to recognise that there are thought to be more slaves now than at any point in history. That fact alone should remind us why this festival is still so relevant today.

Likewise, especially now, when we see war on European soil. We stand with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters who are experiencing the horror of war. This week, we marked Ukrainian Independence Day, and I am proud that residents in the city of Hull are playing their part by supporting refugees caught up in the conflict.

Let us not forget there is freedom through finances. One’s lifestyle is so often affected by the money they possess. And so, with the economic uncertainty that is about to hit, we do have to recognise that it will restrict many people’s freedoms and what they can do. As a council, we recognise this and will do all we can to support the residents of Hull through the time ahead.

I also wanted to just touch, though, on the fact that this is an arts and cultural festival. Hull is a cultural city. The time as City of Culture put this on show for all to see – it was not the beginning of that.

Why does this matter? Art and culture are about expression. It is about emotion. Whether it is joy, whether it is fear, whether it is love or community, all of these can be expressed through art and culture. What something like the Freedom Festival does is bring all this out for everyone to see. It is a reminder that art and culture are not the preserve of the elite, but for everyone.

The quality of the acts on show this next fortnight are truly world class. It is to be celebrated that many of them are in fact from around the world. It is truly something of great pride that this city puts on such a show as this. Alongside the global, this is also a chance to showcase the local, and I am pleased that local talent is central to the festival as well.

Most of all, I hope that the performances, the talks, the installations and other events you get to see do arouse in you those emotions I mentioned before and many more besides.

Finally, may I take this chance to thank Mikey and all of the team at Freedom who have worked so hard to put this programme together. My challenge for them tonight is to be ready as soon as this year is over to be on with making next year’s even bigger still. Of course, thank you too to the many volunteers who will be working throughout the next fortnight. It is no understatement to say this festival couldn’t happen without them. Thank you!  

Freedom Festival 2022: Everything You Need to Know                                                             

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