Ladyfest Boston Channels Punk Rock Feminism, But Confronts Riot Grrrl’s Diversity Problem

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Noel'le Longhaul, Alyssa Kai, Ruby Vespertilio, Nick Berger of Loone. (Courtesy Walter Wlordarcyzk)
Noel'le Longhaul, Alyssa Kai, Ruby Vespertilio, Nick Berger of Loone. (Courtesy Walter Wlordarcyzk)

This weekend, Ladyfest — the worldwide music and art festival with roots in the '90s feminist punk rock scene called riot grrrl — returns to greater Boston.

The festival (or, more accurately, the phenomenon) started in Washington, and has since proliferated around the globe, its offspring linked only by name and a shared mission. Ladyfest is now nearing its second decade. But a lot has changed since the original — including feminism.

Roots In Radical Politics And Punk

Ladyfest began back in August of 2000, when, for five nights, people packed the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington, to catch first generation riot grrrl bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile, as well as indie rock heavies like Cat Power and Neko Case. That week, Olympia found itself deliriously overrun with punk music, performance art and radical politics — and, most importantly, women.

“You know, it was like someone opened a door and I walked in and I was allowed to be there,” says Vancouver musician Rose Melberg, who performed with her band the Softies. “It just felt different. ... I felt surrounded by women, surrounded by feminist ideas, surrounded by art made by women, you know. Everything about it felt safe.”

At night, Ladyfest hummed with music and dance parties and after-hour drag shows, but the daytimes were dedicated to activism. There were workshops in self-defense, labor organizing and auto mechanics, and panels on trans issues and sex work. An old schedule of the festival, still archived online, boasts events with titles like “I’d rather be fat than brainwashed: Bad Ass-Fat Ass panel” and “Orgy-nizing: A discussion about sex where everyone is the expert.”

"[It was amazing] that it was all being organized by women," Melberg says. "And, you know, the scope of Ladyfest was so far beyond just what we had been talking about in our sort of young, punk rock feminism. This was so much bigger."

In the years since, musicians and activists have organized their own Ladyfests in cities all over the world, from Atlanta to London to Shanghai. Boston hosted its first Ladyfest in 2012, and on April 14 through 16, a new group of organizers will bring the festival to the Cambridge YMCA.

Ladyfest Boston follows in the footsteps of its namesake, a scrappy, DIY affair with workshops on how to make zines, engineer sound and prevent sexual violence in the music scene. The profits will go to local advocacy groups Girls Rock Campaign Boston and Rosie’s Place. The lineup features popular indie rockers Sad13 (a project by Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz) and Colleen Green, as well as local bands like the quirky, aggressive Birthing Hips.

Pushing For A Feminist Fest Beyond Buzzwords

But as Ladyfest comes up on two decades, it grapples with an issue that has dogged riot grrrl and the wider feminist movement for years.

“The early '90s punk feminism — there have been criticisms that it was very exclusive,” Melberg says. “It was a lot of middle-class ... white women with a very comfortable kind of feminism.”

In other words: What good is feminism if it only benefits a small, privileged subset of women? And what good is a feminist music festival if it overlooks the most marginalized artists? These questions were evidently on the minds of Ladyfest’s creators — the original event included workshops addressing not just sexism, but racism, poverty and transgender rights — and recent years have seen a growing mainstream awareness of feminism’s need for diversity and inclusion. (Or what feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw termed “intersectionality”: the idea that the intersection of distinct social identities, like a person’s race and gender, inflects that person’s experience of oppression.)

Ladyfest Boston organizer Zoë Wyner says the organizing committee took these concerns to heart. “I think that we've really made a concerted effort to be aware of representing as many different populations that we can, in the amount of time that we can,” she says.

It’s not just about the optics of a diverse lineup. Activists say that inclusivity in the arts and in feminism is important for very practical reasons. “It's a redistribution of wealth,” explains DiDi Delgado, a co-founder of the Society of Urban Poetry (SOUP) and an organizer with Black Lives Matter Cambridge. “And wealth not meaning so much monetary, but wealth as in: a lot of spaces that are primarily white or primarily cisgendered hold a lot of resources that persons that don’t look like that or are the opposite of that don’t have.”

The Ladyfest name carries clout, and its performers stand to benefit from that — performers like the Western Mass. post-folk band Loone. “As a trans woman I feel that sometimes, within DIY scenes, I have been forced to — for my comfort, for my safety, for my survival — find little nooks and notches and bubbles in which I can do my work,” says Loone drummer Alyssa Kai.

Kai, who is transgender, says she hasn’t always felt welcome, or even safe, in New England's underground music scene — and that she has even been the target of verbal abuse at shows. So she sticks to familiar circles, where she feels comfortable. Ladyfest is a bigger platform for Loone, and therefore an exciting opportunity. At the same time, it's one Kai is approaching with caution.

“A lot of DIY scenes … will take on a buzzword, like ‘transmisogyny,’ and will do its best to sort of integrate that, and then stop doing work because it thinks that it has integrated that,” Kai says. “It's a sort of optimism that ‘We have arrived, we have come into our own, and we are right and we don’t need to think anymore.’ [It’s] something that I try to constantly push back against as I try to enter feminist spaces.”

That is, just because Ladyfest has lofty goals, doesn’t mean it achieves them. For instance, despite the focus on diversity, Ladyfest Boston’s lineup still skews white, as does its organizing committee. But the committee is also entirely women — a rarity, even today.

Melberg, whose current band Knife Pleats will perform at Ladyfest Boston on Saturday, says events like Ladyfest are as important today as they were back in 2000, when it all began.

“Any rock show on any given night of the week, you know, it's still 90, 95 percent men. And all-male bands or predominantly male bands. And that, shockingly, hasn't changed,” she says. “I certainly see a lot more women in music now, which is great, but sadly I still don't see enough of it. And so things like Ladyfest where, it's this space where, I bet you had no idea how many women there were playing music in this one town, or in this one area. And so a thing like Ladyfest puts it all in one place.”

This weekend, Ladyfest Boston will put it all in one place, too: music, art and feminism, in all their imperfections and possibilities.

This segment aired on April 14, 2017.


Amelia Mason Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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