Arts

At Venus Fest, inclusion isn't a buzzword — it's the heart of their fight for women in music

The festival lifts up female and non-binary artists in an industry often painfully unaware of its own biases and shortcomings.

The festival lifts up female and non-binary artists in an industry often painfully unaware of its own biases

Queen of Swords, featuring festival organizer Aerin Fogel, performs at Venus Fest. (Venus Fest/venusfest.net)

The word "inclusion" can be sapped of its important meaning, but Venus Fest breathes life into what sometimes feels like it's reduced to a trend. This ethos is at the heart of the Toronto-based music festival that puts women (any female-identifying or non-binary person) at the centre — an approach that has made the festival a wildly successful endeavour. The now-annual music fest, entering its second year on September 20th, fulfills a real need in the music community. Venus Fest pushes for a new standard, one that moves away from the well-documented awful parts of the industry. (In 2018 still, several large-scale festivals don't have gender parity, venues don't entirely have secure safety measures against sexual assault and some venues in Toronto are keeping their doors closed to hip hop acts.)

"It can be very frustrating that something so beautiful [like Venus Fest] exists only in reaction to something that has been so painful for so many people," Aerin Fogel, the festival's organizer, tells CBC Arts.

Fogel has a long history in the Toronto music community, performing recently in her group Queen of Swords, and understands firsthand the exclusionary tactics employed against women. Going hand-in-hand with that are the prioritization and seemingly unlimited opportunities historically given to men. The festival still feels revolutionary in an industry and community painfully unaware of its own biases and shortcomings.

The crowd at the inaugural Venus Fest. (Venus Fest/venusfest.net)

Fogel works to make the festival flow from a place of intersectional feminism, being mindful of not only the barriers women face, but also the additional barriers that can come with race, physical mobility and gender identity, to name a few.The festival doesn't exclude men — Fogel has made it clear in her approach that everyone is welcome — it's just their visibility isn't made priority. Last year, Venus Fest ensured there were gender neutral bathrooms at the venue; there were also community-building and restorative spaces outside of the performance area so that if anyone needed a social break (a very real and sometimes intimidating thing to ask for), they had the opportunity to do so without being bothered by anyone.

To say Venus Fest was successful last year is to put it mildly. It is genuinely one of the most well-run festivals I have been to, even while it dealt with set times running a little behind schedule. The audience and performers, it felt, had all quietly and collectively signed on to have fun and be generous to each other. No one was, in short, an asshole. But the fest now has much to live up to after a stunning debut.

"After the first year, we're still learning what Venus Fest needs to be in the world now because there was this initial need for it to exist," Fogel says. How well the festival was supported far surpassed Fogel's initial vision but, going forward, that comes with its own set of new challenges and accountability. "Now that [Venus Fest] exists, there is the question of: how do we keep meeting the different needs of the community as they come up? How can we keep growing and adapting and learning to be able to better fit with what people want to engage with in Toronto spaces?"

One of the bands playing this year is the shoegaze/alt rock outfit Vallens, whose lyrics and visuals make a point to tackle pressing issues facing women. Playing at Venus Fest aligns strongly with the band's personal values. "Not that everything you do or every show you do has to have some sort of political agenda, but I think it's important to be very transparent that you want to see things changed and you want to see things different and you are onboard with that ship," says Robyn Phillips, the band's vocalist and guitarist, about the festival. "[Venus Fest] brings a lot of people together who wouldn't necessarily really play together and, because of that, it's really embracing — and maybe starting — another community within the communities of specifically just support."

Maylee Todd, a pillar in the Toronto music community, echoes similar sentiments about being part of a festival that exclusively centres women. The visual artist — whose work is rooted in feminism, such as her show Visual Womb — notes that the fest's existence, at least for now, is vital. "I think a festival like this is really important because of the platform for female-identifiers to feel safe, to also be inspired by each other, to inspire others," she says. "It's big to see someone you can identify with and say, 'Oh, of course I can do this [too].'"

This year, the festival is spread out over three nights and three different venues. "We're excited to have something that takes up a little more space and expands over a bigger time period," Fogel tells me. "Looking at different pieces of accessibility, one long day was really intense for audience members and our staff, so having it be a little more digestible will make for people to really take in the artists in a different way."

Fogel's approach to billing is subtle and genius. She still curates similar sounds and presence, along with recent release to satisfies newness or buzz, while keeping her key goal of integration: bridging gaps in genre, experience and visibility. Fogel will bring headliners to Toronto like the Nashville punk band Bully and the innovative Zola Jesus, along with the experimental hip hop electronic act Moor Mother, who Fogel says will be appearing in Toronto for the first time ever. But similarly to last year, there will be a variety of voices from varying genres like rock, punk, hip hop, experimental, electronic and more with performances by TiKA, Isla Craig, Oshun, Partner and LOOM (just to name a few). The mixture of styles didn't hinder last year's festival, held in Regent Park's Daniel Spectrum. The audience effortlessly moved through the energies, getting pumped up to Lido Pimienta, Weaves and Madame Ghandi's sets, while matching the mood of Grouper's, sitting down on the floor, quiet, attentive.

Lido Pimienta performs at Venus Fest. (Venus Fest/venusfest.net)

Fogel is thoughtful about the musicians billed and what they are contributing artistically or otherwise in their respective communities — and what bringing that presence to the festival means overall. "We've really thought about who is in that space and why they are there [such as an artist] like LOOM. Brooke [Manning] runs The Likely General on [Roncesvalles Ave. in Toronto], and that's been a very big community space for many people, and a lot of incredible work that happens out of there."

A festival like this is really important because of the platform for female-identifiers to feel safe, to also be inspired by each other, to inspire others. It's big to see someone you can identify with and say, 'Oh, of course I can do this [too].'- Maylee Todd

The meaning — and purpose — of inclusivity can get lost when it feels like it's being used as a means of performative identity politics or appeasement. Sometimes it's a passing sentiment in a tweet but the intent goes no further than that, never reaching for inclusion to be tangible offline. To be welcoming of everyone without distinguishing them based on a hierarchy is a goal so many constantly feel is out of reach. In popular music this is especially true no matter which progressive lane we swerve into each day. Voices from communities often underrepresented or threatened to be extinguished altogether fight for inclusion. Usually, extraordinary talent is required to be part of the game at all — hoops, as it were, to jump through non-stop.

Venus Fest is still smaller and in its relative infancy than, say, an Osheaga or even a similarly structured clubland festival like NXNE, but it manages to effortlessly reach for equilibrium and build on that each year. By being transparent about their goals and asking the community what they need from it, Venus Fest shows how successful inclusion can be. Success doesn't need to mean monetary profit. It may look like a person seeing their own experience reflected back to them from under the stage spotlights — which is richer in feeling than a fat wallet.

Venus Fest. September 20-22. Mod Club and Opera House, Toronto. www.venusfest.net

About the Author

Sarah MacDonald is a music and culture writer whose work has appeared in The Walrus, Flare, NOW, and many more. Previously, she was an associate editor at Noisey Canada. She's happy to be here.