The Radical Notion of Safe Spaces in Music

Toronto's Venus Fest is part of a movement to prove our music scenes can be free of sexism

The crowd at Venus Fest in Toronto.
The crowd at Venus Fest in Toronto.(Photo collages by Danielle Aphrodite)

In 2010, Mike Burkett, the lead singer of punk band NOFX, took the stage at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival. Performing as a short-lived alter ego named Cokie the Clown, Burkett delivered a set of mostly disturbing gimmickry, so brash it became depressing. After serving the audience shots of tequila (he later claimed they were of his own urine), Burkett told a story that I still think of any time I’m en route to the bathroom alone in a divey music venue. In the ’80s, he said, he and bandmate Eric Melvin were at a Vandals concert where they witnessed a woman being carried down the stairs by two men who planned to rape her. Terrified, she grabbed them and yelled, “Help me!” But they didn’t. The men carrying her away told Burkett and Melvin not to say anything. So Burkett went back upstairs and watched the Vandals, knowing the horror occurring below.

It’s to instances like these that I return when we talk about safe spaces, insofar as gender is concerned. The phrase “safe space” has become so belittled by accusations of over-sensitivity that the idea of intentionally engineering an environment so that people are safe from harm feels somehow uncool. Too often, demands for a safe space are met with charges of fragility—women are told to endure the acrimony or to toughen up and prove their strength.

That a music scene has to be dangerous in order to be interesting is a deceit that continues to make women suffer. It’s a hazing ritual that never subsides. In many music scenes, and in the rock/punk/grunge scenes especially, there is a sly sense of pride affixed to the experience of overcoming gendered maleficence. Women are measured in terms of resilience against misogynistic danger. Foremothers of music and music journalism rarely get to discuss their origins without detailing the sexism they had to oppose, as though doing so were a normal rite of passage. (How many music memoirs follow a trajectory of men their authors had to defeat?)

The simple act of being participatory in a music space is so regularly debasing that we’ve come to expect it as part of the ritual. And so safe spaces, whether we employ that term or not, are about necessary reconfigurations of power. There’s a sense of dire optimism at work: What happens when we reduce the dominion of those who perpetuate harm?

Photo collage by Danielle Aphrodite
Witch Prophet (Photo collages by Danielle Aphrodite)

To see this question answered, we can turn to events such as the inaugural Venus Fest, a daylong Toronto music festival centered around women and non-binary musicians, which took place last September. Festival founder Aerin Fogel curated the twelve-act event as a response to gender disparity on music festival lineups. The event mandated an anti-oppressive ethos, and almost all of the musicians identified as non-binary or as women. For another example of how safe spaces work, we might also look to venues such as Toronto’s, unfortunately now shuttered, Less Bar, where the house rules—posted at the venue and on its website—included “No Racism, Misogyny, Homophobia, Bullying or any other bullshit.” (Less Bar’s management announced the venue’s closure in December.) Ottawa’s Project SoundCheck, too, has been working to eradicate sexual violence at music events since its launch in 2015, after research conducted by the Ottawa Hospital’s Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program found that 25 percent of the cases it dealt with in 2013 had occurred at large public events.

The absence of male aggression in a music setting is so unfamiliar to me that the respite of spaces such as Venus Fest feels medicinal. No one fought at Venus Fest. No one got assaulted. No one yelled crude things at the performers between songs. At no point did anxiety rain through my body because a stranger’s crotch was grazing my ass. The bathroom facilities were gender neutral. Everyone peed together (it was fine!). The complicit and the unconcerned did not attend, though the issue of them remains.

It would be ahistorical to suggest that the creation of habitable spaces for marginalized groups is a new concept. (The proliferation of women-only social clubs, such as New York City’s The Wing, where the entry code is $2,000 (US) per year, might have you believe this is avant.) But the Trump era, the symptoms of which we are not immune to in Canada (the “Proud Boys” have shown up at bars in Toronto’s Annex and Dundas West neighbourhoods), has heightened the importance of spaces where rules against oppressive behaviour are plainly articulated and obeyed. “I very deeply felt the need for something like this,” says Fogel, of Venus Fest. “There are a lot of people, myself included, who just don’t feel safe or comfortable in a traditional festival space.”

Discussions of safe spaces seem to inspire images of puritanism, as though decency and edge can’t coexist. But these accusations of prudishness are in place to derail the demand for better. As I walked into Double Double Land late at night recently to see the Toronto DJ Obuxum’s mesmerizing release show, I noticed a NASA (Noise Against Sexual Assault) poster on the wall. Every patron who entered the Kensington Market venue would have read the same policy, which stated there would be zero tolerance for discrimination and misconduct, before entering. The party was no less electrifying, the people no less beautiful, the environment no less enjoyable because of it. To imagine a safe space, one needn’t envision anything utopian or even remarkable—it’s just a place. Nothing needs to change except the behaviour of those who commit indignity against others.

In April, Pitchfork reported that out of 996 North American festival circuit musicians, only 14 percent were women. Groups whose members were of various genders made up an additional 12 percent. Ohio’s Bunbury Music Festival and Alabama’s Sloss Music and Arts Festival each only had one woman-identified person on the bill. According to a 2016 documentary about New York–based feminist DJ collective Discwoman, just 18 percent of electronic music labels have any women on their rosters. Coachella, widely regarded to be North America’s premiere music festival, has only ever featured two women headliners since its creation in 1999. As Dana Keith, festival director of Brooklyn’s Northside Festival, put it to me in 2016, “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you continue to not put women there, they won’t be there.”

Photo Collage by Danielle Aphrodite
Madame Gandhi (Photo collages by Danielle Aphrodite)

Gender disparity on music festival lineups is one topic, abuse within the music world another. But these issues are intertwined. When the vast majority of those displaying power are men, the assumption that they’ve earned said power becomes entrenched. It is through these dominant notions of sovereignty that we arrive at rampantly condoned sexual harassment and assault.

“In spaces where it’s all men, there’s this weird thing—‘you’re a woman, you’re young, you don’t know what you’re doing,’” says singer Ayo Leilani, of Witch Prophet, who played at Venus Fest. “It shifts your whole vibe, being able to see representation and have a space where you feel comfortable and safe.”

In 2016, a sprawling list of women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault against prominent indie music publicist Heathcliff Berru. Earlier that year, Michael Gira, of Swans fame, was also accused of sexual assault, as was producer Dr. Luke, by singer Kesha, in 2014. In 2015, a list of alleged abusers from within the Toronto culture scene appeared in the bathroom of an east-end concert hall. The men on the list ranged from media executives to venue owners to artists. Eight incidents of sexual assault were reported at England’s Reading Festival between 2014 and 2016, according to the Guardian. Sweden’s largest music festival, Bråvalla, was cancelled until further notice due to four reports of alleged rape and twenty-three reports of alleged sexual assault at the 2017 festival.

It goes on. A scroll through music-related headlines of late: “Stage Invader Attempts to Kiss Alvvays Singer Molly Rankin during Gig” (September 19), “XXXTentacion’s Reported Victim Details Grim Pattern of Abuse in Testimony” (September 8), “PWR BTTM Respond to Sexual Abuse, Anti-Semitism Allegations” (May 11), “Nelly Accused of Intimidating His Alleged Rape Victim” (October 10), “Twiggy Ramirez, Marilyn Manson Bassist, Accused of Rape” (October 21), “Another Woman Comes Forward with Detailed Abuse Allegations against R. Kelly” (October 23). In the post-Weinstein cascade of allegations previously unspoken, one woman, a former collaborator, came forward with rape allegations against the Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter. Edmonton music venue the Needle Vinyl Tavern closed “indefinitely” after an employee accused the venue’s owner of groping her. In late October, singer Alice Glass revealed why she left Crystal Castles, the band she cofounded and propelled to fame. According to Glass, bandmate Ethan Katz psychologically, physically, emotionally, and sexually abused her. “It has taken me years to recover from enduring almost a decade of abuse, manipulation and psychological control,” wrote Glass. “I am still recovering.”

Photo collage by Danielle Aphrodite
Lido Pimienta (Photo collages by Danielle Aphrodite)

My own soul has plunged through the floor like an untethered elevator after many recent, intensified discussions about abuse and mistreatment in the music and media industries of which I am a part. We are all proximate to abuse, sometimes more than we know. Years ago, I put a song by the band Real Estate on a mix CD for a person I loved. It is now widely alleged that the band’s former guitarist, Matt Mondanile, has, for years, been sexually and psychologically abusive to women. Musician Julia Holter, who dated Mondanile, issued a statement in October saying that his ongoing emotional abuse caused her to fear for her life.

“The thing that bothers me the most is just how tolerant and numb we are to everyday misogyny,” says musician and activist Madame Gandhi, who also performed at Venus Fest, “as if it’s completely acceptable.”

In addition to Venus Fest, Calgary’s Femme Wave, which launched in 2015, also promises a “harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.” It’s worth noting that Femme Wave, like Venus Fest, does not exclude men from attending. There were lots of men at both—in the bands and in the audience. They were simply not in command. “Having space for true allies is also important”, says Femme Wave cofounder Kaely Cormack.

Cormack adds that after 2016’s festival, organizers conducted a survey asking for artist and participant feedback. One attendee said that they were, for the first time, able to focus on the stage instead of having to be on the lookout for potential danger. “It breaks my heart that a lot of femme, trans, and non-binary folks can’t completely lose themselves in a musical performance for fear of letting their guard down in public,” says Cormack.

It could be argued that the creation of gendered, or even “safe,” spaces signifies a surrender of sorts or that energy should instead be channelled into eradicating discrimination in preexisting music spaces. If all the women go elsewhere, don’t we perpetuate our own invisibility? “Creating a woman-only festival is only a quick, small fix for the large, gaping wound that is a profound lack of safe spaces for female-identifying concertgoers,” wrote Sandra Song in Teen Vogue last year. “And the only way we can truly fix this problem is by fixing the root cause.”

I’m not opposed to Song’s approach. But I do think festivals such as Femme Wave and Venus Fest are refuting the mythology of mandatory suffering. Safe spaces are not a sorority, nor are they about sensitivity. (If those occupying the locations where the aforementioned incidents of sexual violence took place had chosen basic morality over complicity and abuse, there’d be no need to post signs reminding us that rape is against the rules.)

Music communities are, at last, having serious conversations about how to stop harassment and violence. In the meantime, safe spaces afford us the radical notion of harmony.

Carly Lewis
Carly Lewis is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Maclean's, Interview Magazine, and The Atlantic.