Girls to the front: The challenges of being a woman of colour in the world of rock music
April Aliermo's latest column explores her experiences rocking the bass 'in a sea of white cis men'
Finding My Place is a monthly column written by Filipinx-Canadian musician, songwriter, entrepreneur, educator and CBC Arts video correspondent April Aliermo. Check out the introductory edition here.
I've been playing bass in Hooded Fang since the band's inception eight or so years ago. We've toured several times across Canada and the U.S. and Europe. We're an indie rock band, so there are the usual challenging experiences a woman of colour like myself goes through when constantly being around men — not to mention standing out in a sea of white people.
Years ago, we were waiting for soundcheck to begin before a show in Wakefield, Quebec. Passersby couldn't believe that my ambiguous looking half-Asian bandmates and I were there to play a concert and not there to compete in the local dragon boat competition. I know my colleagues have had similar experiences. One example is a Black peer whom sound technicians frequently assume doesn't play an instrument in the band because of his skin colour — they presume he is the singer or a roadie.
Meanwhile, women in rock — and beyond — continue to express complaints of misogyny. I regret not manifesting my photo essay idea of taking portraits of Hooded Fang with the countless numbers of bands we've been on the road with. Most of the images would have been of me posing with 10 white cis men. It took a lot of patience, complaining, teaching, arguing and endurance, but my bandmates finally (mostly) understand the struggles I've been through. As lovely and conscious as my bandmates are, being immersed in masculine heteronormativity became tiring and I've started taking girlfriends on tour with us. One of my bandmates once asked me why I bother to go on playing indie rock music. Though his question riled me up, it is a question I've asked myself for years. I know people of colour in other music genres have wondered the same and I've sometimes felt like I've had to prove my "unwhiteness".
Once in a while, a 10-year-old girl will see my band play and tell me she liked the show and wants to learn how to play the bass too. I guess I have to play until she takes over.- April Aliermo, musician
My relationship with rock 'n' roll music is as complicated as the genre itself. After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American war, the United States occupied the Philippines for nearly 50 years. In the early 1940s, American blues, R&B and rock were introduced to the archipelago. When the Philippines gained independence in 1946, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis remained (alongside American Imperialism). Soon after, the British Invasion made its way to the islands, heavily influencing my father and his brothers, who taught themselves how to play and sing pretty much the entire Beatles discography on the guitar. The first songs I learned to play on the guitar through my father's step-by-step lessons were "Blackbird" and "'Till There Was You." My 95-year-old grandmother still sings Elvis Presley to herself, fondly reminiscing times with my late grandfather.
So though I recognize rock 'n' roll in my life as having colonial history — though its actual roots are in Black American culture — it is very much part of my identity. And what can I say? I love rocking the bass. Finding expression through playing a traditionally male instrument has its uplifting feelings too.
Men in positions of power have had their way of erasing BIPOC, women and LGBTQ folks from art and music history. Not many people know that a Black female guitarist/singer/songwriter influenced Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is known as the godmother for rock 'n' roll! I am grateful for publications like Tom Tom Mag and She Shreds that focus on female-identifying drummers, guitarists and bassists. They remind us that women of colour, trans women and women in general are talented, proficient in these instruments and have a stronger presence than we might be told. Even after all these years of playing music, I am inspired by international movements like Girls Rock Camp that empower a younger generation of female and gender non-conforming kids. Truth be told, band coaching at Girls Rock Camp gives me a much-needed boost of confidence too.
When I'm performing to a sea of white cis men (still the most common demographic for this music I play) I wonder why I am doing this and whom it is I am serving. Then I see a small patch of younger Filipina and other brown women in the front, recklessly moshing — and I play even harder. And once in a while, a 10-year-old girl will see my band play and tell me she liked the show and wants to learn how to play the bass too. I guess I have to play until she takes over.