It just seemed like more and more by the late 90s the music scene was just getting so blown out in this corporate way, really sexist, really mediocre, really a backlash against politics, really depoliticised. And I thought, Hey! instead of complaining about this we need to do something about it.
(Allison Wolfe, Bratmobile interview with Susan O’Shea).
My interests in music and feminism have been as intertwined with one another for as long as I can remember, perhaps as far back as listening to Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and certainly solidified by seeing Huggy Bear back in 1993 on my exam results night. There ‘may’ have been some alcohol consumed so I cannot recall the set-list but we moshed the night away in our oversized army boots, all the girls at front. However, since making Manchester my home ten years ago I have spent a significant part of my life either organising (Manchester 2008, 2011; Oxford 2010; London Ladyfest Ten, 2010), playing as Factory Acts at (Manchester 2015), running workshops, attending (Dublin 2015, Bristol 2012, Cork 2008) or researching Ladyfest – one of the more recent examples of where social movements and music come together.
Popular music has often played an important role in the history of new social movements not only in the more well-known British and American contexts but in a variety of cultural contexts throughout the world, from Egypt to Palestine and Beirut to Brazil. Music is central to many creative movements from Ladyfest to Pussy Riot and Rebel Dykes to Afropunk. Used as a strategy to bring people together music can unite and provoke action in sites of conflict and during acts of protest. Music is also used to spread a message and gather popular support for acts of resistance. Discussions of subcultures and counterculture can help shape public narratives around inequality and how popular music can excite people to critically engage with key political and social events and to participate in collective action and social movements. Certainly, not all countercultures have political aims but the obsession of critics and academics with placing a focus on music participation as a youthful pastime destabilises the distinct possibility of capturing its intrinsic power as a personally transformative force as well as a mutual mobilising mechanism that transcends the generations. Let’s commit that act of collaboration, unleashing the power of music to help us find something in common with one another, to share an experience, sometimes fleeting and sometimes life affirming. Whilst we can listen to music in isolation we can still be linked to a broader music community that shares our tastes, interests and sense of belonging but one that can also challenge, unnerve and inspire us to engage. Ladyfest, as a not-for-profit, woman-focused festival actively commits these acts of collaboration by creating music communities unafraid to contest the status quo, to destabilise expectations and embrace difference whilst producing powerful and enduring soundtracks.
Rebel Girl – Gender and collective action
Despite the high number of female singer-songwriters in the UK charts, music is still largely a male domain. Women are underrepresented across a range of music-related roles and remain marginalised across the industry with limited roles for participation. However, there are a number of women-focused movements that attempt to engage critically with gender inequality within music worlds and wider society and they use activist strategies to challenge these inequalities. Preceding Ladyfest was Riot Grrrl. Born out of a desire to counter male dominance in the music scene, in particular the punk music scene and to help a new generation of young feminists find their voices and fight for their rights. It had its origins in the United States in the early 1990s and consisted of a pre-internet underground cultural revolution by and for women and girls. This was a movement that would reach much farther than its original roots. Riot Grrrl emerged at a time when women’s hard earned rights to bodily autonomy and access to safe and timely abortions were under threat in America with high profile court cases being fought by world weary feminists worn down by a media fuelled feminist backlash. In many ways Riot Grrrl filled a gap left by the second wave women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It brought the personal back to the political because it was a movement created by young angry women with stories to share and a desire to change the cultural landscape. The Riot Grrrl movement was spear-headed by bands such as Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy and although not without its issues nor immune from the frequent whitewashing of cultural history, Riot Grrrl managed to provide a narrative that many young women could identify with on both sides of the Atlantic, one that has been both adapted and extended today.
Feminist movements sound-tracked by rebellious music, like the Rebel Dykes prior to Riot Grrrl, and Ladyfest and Pussy Riot to follow, were deeply embedded in do-it-yourself (DIY) punk sensibilities and prioritised music, with other cultural activities playing supporting roles, as a means of engaging audiences with feminist aims and objectives helping women and girls redress inequalities in cultural production spheres by creating their own culture. The history of women’s creative engagement with feminism and struggles for equality is long and complex. That is why it is important that music movements like Ladyfest are better understood and promoted to a much wider audience than is currently happening. After all they are about equality of participation in the broadest sense of the term and what better way than staging showcase events in the heart of Manchester’s creative hub in the Northern Quarter.
What is Ladyfest?
Ladyfest, as a social, music and cultural movement has an explicit feminist and community activist agenda providing space for political and policy education and debate. It also has close ties with queer politics. It is both a celebration of women’s achievements in music and art but also a challenge to the inequalities that still exist. A number of years ago I asked Allison Wolfe, of Bratmobile and Partyline and a founding member of the inaugural Ladyfest in Olympia 2000, why she thought a festival like Ladyfest was needed and I could not agree more with her response:
It just seemed like more and more by the late 90s the music scene was just getting so blown out in this corporate way, really sexist, really mediocre, really a backlash against politics, really depoliticised. And I thought, Hey! instead of complaining about this we need to do something about it. We need to be involved in our own entertainment, we need to participate in our own cultural activities and in our own cultural communities and be active creators of that and we can shape it in the way we want, and that suits our communities’ needs.
In many ways Wolfe could be speaking of today rather than twenty years ago.
Some of my personal highlights of Ladyfest are certainly the amazing friends I’ve made and continue to make every time I get involved with a festival. The eclectic performers and new artists, the volunteers that put so much effort into making it happen, and the generosity of more well-known female musicians that never fail to donate their performances to the cause and inspire other women to believe in their own abilities and potential. Not to mention the wonderful The Slits and the enigmatic Ari Up who headlined our 2008 Ladyfest for an inconsequential fee, some veggie curry and a floor to crash on. Again in 2011, Viv Albertine whilst writing her memoirs took time out to come back and play for us, chat on a panel discussion and to borrow some of my make-up! Also, seeing men get involved with a pro-woman festival, either helping to organise it or taking part in workshops like exploring the role of men in feminism is key to any progressive feminist movement.
Flash forward to October 2016 and Ladyfest has once more taken over Manchester, this time in the prime location of the Northern Quarter, spilling across several venues over the weekend with the wonderful Gulliver’s and The Castle providing maximum exposure for the bands. I asked one of the organisers Niki Taylor a few questions about Ladyfest and her involvement and why it still matters.
No ‘typical girls’ here
How did you first become involved with the Ladyfest movement and why?
Niki: I am a feminist and an anti-capitalist, I believe the two are not mutually exclusive. I have worked in the third and public sector for over ten years but I feel community work is where my heart is. As a Teenage Mum growing up I experienced oppression and marginalisation and there was a distinct lack of access to support systems and information, I often wonder what it would be like nowadays. I am therefore really passionate about the importance of tackling some of the issues that were apparent back then and still are today, namely sexism! I see oppression everywhere, even in the subtlest of forms, it angers me and makes me want to do something about it, to make changes and deconstruct the deeply ingrained attitudes that permeate all of society.
Why do you think Ladyfest is still needed today?
Niki: To shine, to make ourselves known and to pave the way and inspire other women to continue with the work. We have deliberately selected the workshops because we recognise a real need for them in society and also because they are topical in the media. For example, reproductive rights in Ireland, Poland and the USA. This year we teamed up with the ‘Spirit of Manchester Festival’ who do a lot of good work with community organisations to hopefully spread the word to women that are hard to reach. We also had a community fair promoting the work that many of those organisations do. The other political workshops included subjects on consent and social media; women, race and resistance; trans and non-binary experiences as a feminist; and sex workers’ rights. All the workshops are free to make them accessible for all. In Manchester we’ve noticed it seems to attract a certain demographic, whereby the majority seem to be those that mix in white educated circles therefore we are keen to target more hard to reach women. Access to information and groups are paramount to our cause and the more readily available they are to those women the better. Groups such Asylum Seekers, LGBT, Women of Colour, disabled, victims of abuse, teenage mums and women from deprived backgrounds. We need to keep up the momentum that women have a right to be visible in society in all arenas, not just the music industry.
There are still many industries and communities that are male dominated and many women don’t recognise the barriers they’re faced with or if they do, feel very isolated and unsupported. It is hugely important not to give up because feel we are not given enough recognition. The more we show our presence in the city, the bigger our voice will become and eventually people will listen. All the workshops are facilitated by self-defining women and non-binary people. The tech workshops are in sound engineering, film editing, coding and game design. All the workshops are important and inspiring.
Manchester hosts its sixth festival this year and there have been many more Ladyfest related events over the years. Why do you think Manchester is such a welcoming place for Ladyfest?
Niki: In my youth I remember Manchester being famous for its Indie scene in the 90’s, which without a shadow of a doubt, was male heavy, with regular headlines showing the world just how much chauvinist attitude from Indie band members there was. So yeah Manchester was in need of a massive cultural transformation I think. It just so happened that a bunch of kickass ladies, and gents attempted to penetrate the music industry in Manchester over the years, with some really successful Ladyfest events. Those previous festivals certainly made the ground ripe for us to start organising them. There have even been papers written about Ladyfest as a global movement, right here in Manchester written by Susan O’Shea. Since living here from early 2000’s, I have seen Manchester develop into a really cool, friendly city and a thriving hub for alternative and radical music, including the LGBQT music scene.
It also has the richest working class history in the UK from the industrial revolution and the classic slum of Salford as well as an interesting feminist movement with the Suffragettes, Sylvia Pankhurst being my favourite as the more lefty one that supported working class movements. As well as Elizabeth Wolstenholme who was a real radical feminist on the margins of the movement, she fought for things like the rights of prostitutes and for better education. Most importantly the people of Manchester understand poverty and marginalisation, many a lyric has reflected the hard times here. Music is a powerful vehicle to speak to the people and an easy way to make people listen to important messages that might otherwise be ignored. What better place to hold a radical festival that does just that!
Tell me a little about the things you most excited you about this year’s festival?
Niki: All of it. An awful lot of thought and effort has gone into each area. That is spread across the trendy Northern Quarter of Manchester. To kick start the festival on Friday night screened the cult classic film Clueless and then a late night all female DJ session courtesy of Eastern Bloc Records. Saturday saw Ladyfest take over the whole of Oldham Street with the workshops and Community Fair at Central Buildings and the main music event spread between Gulliver’s and The Castle. Sunday was dedicated to all things creative featuring stand-up, spoken word, music, talks, crafts, zines and much more.
We also have a great campaign on body positivity, which I am really looking forward to seeing develop as part of Ladyfest. There are more of us but the main drivers still seem to be myself and Carly but we have a really fantastic team Elena, Charlotte, Sam, Lauren and Becky. Their work has been invaluable. I hope they loved it as much as we do and want to keep growing with us.
Whilst everyone knows Ladyfest is about creating a space for women in a cluttered male dominated arena and music often draws people into other events, workshops and other creative activities also play an important role in the success of the festival. Can you say a little bit about the format and why you think it works?
Niki: The main aim is to promote women in all arenas of society, however it is driven by music and other art forms such as poetry, spoken word – creative expression is a powerful vehicle to convey important messages and is far easier for the public to grasp than some of the more serious stuff we have on.
What band or musician best represents for you the spirit of Ladyfest? (Think internationally)
Niki: For me Ladyfest conjures up memories of growing up listening to and watching performances from, to name a few, Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Blondie, PJ Harvey, The Slits, Polystyrene, Pauline Black, The Au Pairs, and Chrissie Hynde. We are holding on their legacies for sure with the headliners we’ve had. It’s also a movement that was created to celebrate women in arts and activism back in the year 2000 in Washington off the back of the DIY scene and the Riot Grrrl movement. A group of women recognised a need for this movement because of the male domination many of them experienced. The Riot Grrrls felt marginalised and unsafe and so set up the Ladyfest Festival, which very soon took off and became international. Sixteen years on and it is still going strong as a global phenomenon and takes place in many cities worldwide including: Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Brazil, Bristol, Cardiff, Dijon, Toulouse, Dublin, LA, San Francisco, London, Barcelona, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Shanghai, Wellington. They are all organised by volunteers and are totally DIY with little or no funding.
What Manchester-based band or musician do you think captures the ethos of Ladyfest?
Niki: Ladyfest features some of the most exciting female artists coming out of Manchester at the moment in comedy, poetry, art and music. For example, we have and are featuring some ceiling smashing bands, DJs and solo musicians such as ILL, Factory Acts, Ajah UK, Esper Scout, Galivantes, Tekla, Mr Heart, Liines, Poppycock, tAngerinecAt, Elena Cau. As well as legendary DJs Veba (Rae & Christian/ Grand Central) and AFRODEUTSCHE working alongside Carl Craig (Detroit Producer) Graham Massey (808 State/Massonix) & Paddy Steer (Home Life). We have also had some inspirational headliners, who made their mark in the music industry back in previous punk days. Last year we had Lesley Woods from the Au Pairs and this year we an ex-honorary member from The Slits, Honeychild Coleman AKA Sugarfreebk. A previous Ladyfest in Manchester had Ari Up, with the original line-up of The Slits play at one of theirs, which must have been incredible. Ladyfest has definitely become something quite special and it needs to have a firm place in Manchester’s culture, long may it continue.
Thanks to Niki for a great overview of the work that the current Ladyfest team are doing in Manchester. It may be a movement that does not always get everything right but it is a grassroots movement that is willing to learn, adapt and change to fit the needs of its community. For many women, and men too, Ladyfest can act as a first point of contact with feminism and an opportunity to make friends and meet like-minded people while expressing their identities through alternative music and cultural collective experiences. It is important to understand how Ladyfest may be a catalyst for the development of other creative networks, collaborative ties and friendships for organisers, performers/musicians and participants too. So get involved with Ladyfest Manchester next year, and look out for the many events they will no doubt be running throughout the year.
As Alison Wolfe says:
A big part of the legacy is really the unions and connections and networking, the connections and communities that are formed as part of organising Ladyfest. And a lot of these people have gone on to do amazing things and to continue with new projects that spun off of Ladyfest. When I look at the legacy of Ladyfest I see all of these connections that were made and whether the activities that people continue to work on together are called Ladyfest or not, I think that they’ve made awesome progressive movements of their own.
Get out there and start your own Ladyfest, after all it’s your movement too.
To get you started here is a playlist of past Ladyfest Manchester performers and Ladyfest inspiring musicians. Enjoy!